How can workers be protected from extreme heat?

Women and children wash themselves after work at a muskmelon farm in Jacobabad, Pakistan. May 17, 2022. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

Women and children wash themselves after work at a muskmelon farm, Jacobabad, Pakistan. May 17, 2022. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

What’s the context?

Not enough is being done to protect workers' health as heatwaves fuelled by climate change increase the risks, labour experts say

  • About 70% of workers exposed to extreme heat, report says
  • Outdoor workers, pregnant women among high-risk groups
  • Some nations order midday break, drinking water provision]

More than two-thirds of workers have been exposed to excessive heat while doing their jobs, according to a new U.N. report, but few countries have taken steps to protect them as climate change makes heatwaves more frequent and intense.

Nearly 19,000 people die every year due to workplace injuries attributed to excessive heat, and an estimated 26.2 million people are living with chronic kidney diseases linked to workplace heat stress, according to this month's report by the U.N.'s International Labour Organization (ILO).

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Here's what you need to know:

What are the health risks of extreme heat?

Heat exhaustion, which can include dizziness, headaches, shaking and thirst, can affect anyone, and is not usually serious, providing the person cools down within 30 minutes.

The more serious version is heatstroke, when the body's core temperature goes above 40.6 degrees Celsius (105 degrees Fahrenheit). It is a medical emergency and can lead to long-term organ damage and death. Symptoms include rapid breathing, confusion or seizures, and nausea.

Existing conditions, including respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, as well as diabetes, can also heighten risk - and be exacerbated by heat.

When temperatures exceed 38C, the risk of workplace accidents and injuries rises by 10%-15%, research has found.

Which workers are most at risk?

People working outside are among those most at risk from extreme heat - from farm labourers to construction workers and gig workers, who often lack regular breaks or access to drinking water while out delivering orders.

"Food delivery drivers have heart attacks when it's hot outside ... We need to think of that in the context of climate change," said Oğuz Alyanak, a researcher at Fairwork, a gig research project at Britain's Oxford Internet Institute.

Inadequate cooling in the workplace can also pose problems for indoor workers such as domestic workers, teachers or garment factory employees.

Within those groups, pregnant women and older workers can be at particular risk of heat-related illness, while those with no sick leave benefits often feel unable to take time off if they feel unwell.

Migrant workers hired to work outdoors in hot countries are another high-risk group, especially when they are not given time to acclimatise, said Manal Azzi, an occupational safety and health safety expert at the ILO and the study's lead author.

"They just throw them on construction sites where they're daily facing excessive heat, and their bodies will react much worse than others," Azzi told Context.

They are also less likely to speak up because they do not know their rights and are scared of losing their jobs.

A labourer works at a construction site on a hot summer day in Noida, India, May 12, 2022. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

A labourer works at a construction site on a hot summer day in Noida, India, May 12, 2022. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

A labourer works at a construction site on a hot summer day in Noida, India, May 12, 2022. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

What is being done to protect workers from heat?

Countries including Spain have set heat exposure and maximum temperature limits for outdoor workers, and many in the Middle East enforce midday work bans and rest breaks when temperatures soar to dangerous levels in the summer months.

In the United Arab Emirates, for example, when labourers have to work during these hours, employers must provide cold drinking water, first-aid kits, cooling facilities and shaded rest areas.

Several Indian states have adopted heat action plans that recommend minimal outdoor activity during the hottest hours of the day, though that is not possible for many workers - including the country's roughly 7.5 million gig workers.

And as record heat hit the United States in mid-2023, the Biden administration issued its first heatwave hazard alert to affirm workers' rights to heat protections.

In the Philippines, record temperatures in recent weeks led thousands of public schools to switch to online classes as the heatwaves took a toll on the health of both teachers and students. They were also allowed to wear cooler clothing, instead of uniforms.

(Reporting by Bukola Adebayo @BUKAdebayo in Lagos. Editing by Helen Popper)

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A woman drinks water from a mug on a hot summer day in New Delhi, India June 9, 2023

Part of:

What risks do we face because of rising heat?

What can be done to limit the physical, mental, economic and social risks of rising heat?

Updated: May 07, 2024


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