Prolonged exposure over several weeks to pollutant particles, specifically the PM 2.5, has shown to reduce the output of workers in China in an extensive study by economists from National University of Singapore (NUS).
In fact, an increase in pollution severity index PM2.5, by 10 micrograms per cubic metre sustained over 25 days, reduces daily output by 1%.
The team from the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences discovered that prolonged air pollution in China negatively impacted the productivity of textile factory workers, with the results published in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics on 3 January 2019.
Associate Professor Alberto Salvo from the Department of Economics and an author of the study, explained: "Our aim with this research was to broaden the understanding of air pollution in ways that have not been explored.
"We typically think that firms benefit from lax pollution regulations, by saving on emission control equipment and the like; here we document an adverse effect on the productivity of their work force."
The link between air pollution and productivity
The NUS team, including Associate Professor Liu Haoming and Dr He Jiaxiu, spent over a year interviewing managers at a dozen factories in four provinces in China, before obtaining access to data for two factories, one in Henan and the other in Jiangsu.
The factories were textile mills, and workers were paid according to each piece of fabric they made. Hence, the researchers compared how many pieces each worker produced each day to measures of the concentration of particulate matter that the worker was exposed to over time.
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A standard way of determining the severity of pollution is to measure how many fine particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter (PM2.5) are in the air.
At the two factory locations, pollution levels varied significantly from day to day, but overall they were consistently high. At one location, PM2.5 levels averaged about seven times the safe limit set by the US Environmental Protection Agency, at 85 micrograms per cubic metre.
Interestingly, unlike previous literature, the team found that daily fluctuations in pollution did not immediately affect the productivity of workers. However, when they measured for more prolonged exposures of up to 30 days, a definite drop in output can be seen.
"We found that an increase in PM2.5, by 10 micrograms per cubic metre sustained over 25 days, reduces daily output by 1%, harming firms and workers," says Associate Professor Liu.
Why does productivity go down when pollution goes up?
The researchers remain agnostic about the reasons.
"High levels of particles are visible and might affect an individual’s well-being in a multitude of ways,” explained Assoc Prof Liu. “Besides entering via the lungs and into the bloodstream, there could also be a psychological element. Working in a highly polluted setting for long periods of time could affect your mood or disposition to work.”
All the data collected in the study are being made open access to accelerate progress in this topic. Assoc Prof Salvo explained: "We wanted to share all the information we gathered so that other researchers may use it as well, hopefully adding to this literature’s long-run credibility. We saw no reason why data on anonymous workers at a fragmented industry could not be shared."
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