How hot is too hot to work? Heatwaves renew workers' rights push

A woman uses a fan as she walks, during the second heatwave of the year, in Madrid, Spain, July 20, 2022

A woman uses a fan as she walks, during the second heatwave of the year, in Madrid, Spain, July 20, 2022. REUTERS/Isabel Infantes

What’s the context?

Record-smashing temperatures raise stakes for trade unions who want to protect EU and U.S. workers from extreme heat

  • Killer heat shows health toll of climate change
  • Campaigners want EU and US to keep pace with global warming
  • Delivery trucks become 'mobile ovens' in heatwave

BRUSSELS/WASHINGTON - Ismael García has been sweeping the sultry streets of Madrid for 24 years, but this summer something changed: his family worried every time he set off for work in the Spanish capital.

"People were saying 'take care, take it easy' ... it was a topic that came up at the dinner table," Garcia, 42, told Context.

Their fears proved justified in July when another sweeper in Madrid - aged 60 - collapsed and died of heat stroke, prompting new measures to protect workers in record heatwaves. 

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Europe set a slew of new highs this summer, with hotter and longer heatwaves - which are becoming more frequent with climate change - increasing the risk of heat-related accidents, illnesses and deaths.

Excessive heat contributed to the deaths of nine workers in Spain and six in France this year, according to the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), citing local media.

Britain said on Friday that it had recorded more than 2,800 excess deaths among people aged 65 or over this summer - the highest figure since 2004, when it began making plans to protect people's health during heatwaves.

In the United States, it was the third hottest summer on record, catalysing campaigns to get heat recognised as an occupational hazard.

"It's a case of working against the clock to save workers' lives," said Ignacio Doreste, a senior advisor at the ETUC.

A street-sweeper works, amid the second heatwave of the year, in Madrid, Spain July 20, 2022

A street-sweeper works, amid the second heatwave of the year, in Madrid, Spain July 20, 2022. REUTERS/Isabel Infantes

A street-sweeper works, amid the second heatwave of the year, in Madrid, Spain July 20, 2022. REUTERS/Isabel Infantes

Summer of sorrow

Sweepers like Garcia had warned for years about the risks of high heat, but said they were refused water and rest breaks.

"Other summers, you could say that you had a week, 15 bad days ... but this summer it has been the opposite. Apart from 15 days when the temperature dropped a little, the rest of the summer has been extremely hot," he said.

It was only after the sweeper's death in July that Madrid agreed to shift work outside the peak heat and allow a water break every 90 minutes.

A small step that could save many lives, said García.

The fallout of high heat is well researched - including heat stroke, heart disease, chronic kidney disease and respiratory disorders that can lead to disability or death.

Heat stress occurs at temperatures above 35C (95F) in high humidity, according to the International Labour Organization.

Despite the known hazards, legislation governing maximum working temperatures and minimum numbers of breaks has not kept pace with global warming, according to European trade unions.

ETUC found a patchwork of rules covers workers on hot days in Belgium, Hungary, Latvia, Slovenia and Spain, while other European Union (EU) countries had no specific legislation at all.

Belgium opts to focus on the level of physical activity, setting maximum working temperatures at 29C (84F) for light work, and 18C (64F) for heavy physical work.

In Spain, offices must be kept below 27C (81F) and the top temperature for light work is 25C (77F) - but the rules do not cover all types of workers or all premises.

Nor is the definition of 'light work' clear or universal.

Add to this a host of other variables - the add-on effect of humidity, solar radiation or personal protective equipment - and worker protections look far from uniform, health and safety experts say.

ETUC wants legally binding rules that keep all EU workers safe in excessive heat, but it can often take five years to negotiate such packages in the EU and another two for them to come into force.

In the meantime, it is working with the European Commission on a recommendation which would set out guidelines for safe working practices in high heat.

"We cannot wait for another summer of heat waves," said ETUC deputy general secretary Claes-Mikael Ståhl.

A delivery truck pauses at a traffic light in Washington, U.S., March 27, 2020

A delivery truck pauses at a traffic light in Washington, U.S., March 27, 2020. REUTERS/Leah Millis

A delivery truck pauses at a traffic light in Washington, U.S., March 27, 2020. REUTERS/Leah Millis

Americans lead the way

Across the Atlantic, workers have also been pushing for heat to be recognised as an occupational hazard – particularly after a sweltering 2021 where record temperatures buckled roads and melted power lines in the Pacific Northwest.

United Parcel Service (UPS) driver Basil Darling even had to drop a co-worker off at hospital as he struggled through soaring temperatures in the New York area.

"You could see in his face - you know when the life is being sucked out of you? He just didn't look well," said Darling, who is also an organiser with the local chapter of the Teamsters Union.

His colleague, who was in his 40s and had a pre-existing health condition that made him vulnerable in hot weather, ended up missing at least a week of work.

It can be difficult to get management to listen to worker concerns, said Darling, who likened a UPS delivery truck to "a mobile oven" when temperatures rise.

"The only time they actually take it serious is when you tell them 'OK, I'm getting in the ambulance'," he said.

Workers are pushing for heat protections as part of broader contract negotiations.

Unlike some firms, UPS does not install air conditioning in all its delivery trucks, with the company saying it would not be an efficient way to keep drivers cool given their layout.

In a statement, UPS spokesperson Matthew O’Connor said staff health and safety was "our highest priority," citing the heat-resistant uniforms and cooling towels it distributed, and the fans it installed in some vehicles, among other initiatives.

Last year, the federal government took steps to set up a first-ever national heat standard in a bid to protect workers from being forced to labor during extreme temperatures. 

"It's great that we have a federal heat standard in the pipeline sometime, because we’ve been howling for it for decades," said Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns for the United Farm Workers union.

But given it can take years to pass federal rules, she emphasised the importance of going the state route "because it's faster".

Darling said policymakers might need a push if drafts of legislation are to be drawn up before the next summer of heat waves descends.

"If we don't establish these laws or regulations... many people may not even want to do these jobs outdoors," he said.

"These are the conditions that impact us and climate change isn't going to go away."

(Reporting by Joanna Gill and David Sherfinski. Additional reporting by Oscar Valero; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths and Katy Migiro.)


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Workers' rights
Economic inclusion

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