Heat is Rising – Workers Need More Protection
When speaking to clients and partners today the conversation is focused around heat, regardless of their location. It’s clear there are serious and growing concerns about its impact on workers, their well-being, and the business ramifications. There are dual contributing factors: keeping employees safe in soaring temperatures, and implementing new health and safety regulations, especially for those operating in extreme environments.
The growing risk of heat stress is a significant concern, especially for teams and lone workers in high-heat industries such as metal manufacturing, paper mills and mining, and where temperature can’t be as easily controlled, such as construction sites. Heat-related illnesses are caused when a person’s core body temperature (CBT) is raised beyond a safe level, potentially causing cardiovascular strain, dehydration, heat stroke and in the worst cases, death. It can impair balance, coordination, cognition and cause fatigue – all increasing the chances of occupational accidents and negatively affecting productivity. The cost to any business can be colossal, yet is often overlooked.
Climatic temperatures are heating up, and the outlook doesn’t look promising. The disastrous effects of climate change are being felt worldwide with record-breaking heat waves, wildfires and droughts. Regions like the Emirates, the Gulf, and parts of the USA experience the highest summer temperatures on the planet. Last year, Australia recorded a high of 50.7°C / 123.26°F, while temperatures of 40°C / 104°F or more are becoming increasingly common.
In Europe, according to Eurofound, nearly a quarter of workers are exposed to extremely high temperatures for at least a quarter of their working time. The proportion of such workers in agriculture is even higher (36%), while the construction industry leads as the sector experiencing the highest amount of heat exposure (38%). There’s no doubt that these numbers are likely to be much higher in countries closer to the equator.
A UCLA study from 2021 found that excessive heat causes an additional 20,000 injuries per year, on top of a social cost of $1billion. Another study estimated that extreme heat contributes to between 600 and 2,000 worker fatalities annually in the United States. Those numbers will likely increase with rising temperatures caused by climate change.
Heat stress also impacts productivity. The U.N. International Labour Organization (ILO) says work-related heat stress could lead to productivity loss, equivalent to 80 million full-time jobs in 2030, costing the global economy $2.4 trillion. In the US alone, it’s estimated $100 billion will be lost annually due to reduced worker capacity from heat stress.
In response, governments around the world are updating health and safety regulations. In 2021, Qatar and Saudi Arabia adopted new rules to protect workers from heat stress, including a ban on working outdoors in the summer during the hottest times of the day. Qatar also introduced a maximum working temperature of 32.1°C / 89.78°F.
While progress is being made in some countries, others are still playing catch up. Only a handful of European countries currently have a “too hot to work” limit. Germany considers 35°C / 95°F “unsuitable” for work unless businesses take further measures. However, the EU calls for a legally enforceable maximum working temperature. Additional regulation is expected to be introduced as climate experts predict that the number of days with unsafe heat conditions will double between now and 2050. Mandated maximum working temperatures however will not solve all heat-related workplace incidents – it needs to work in tandem with other measures.
It’s positive to see leaders taking action. These steps form strong foundations for open dialogue between regulators and organisations. This will help to ensure a greater understanding of the risks and such that incidents do not continue to go unreported.
In the majority of cases, heat-related illnesses are avoidable if the correct measures are implemented and action is taken rapidly. Knowing the right combination of prevention and response strategies is critical. Using research and insights supported by evidence can ensure effective plans and risk management. These can help derive the right measures, varying from hydration plans to adjusting work schedules and introducing work/rest timetables.
Now, technology is helping businesses monitor, predict and prevent heat stress in real time. Bodytrak, for example, is a smart safety wearable solution that continually and accurately monitors heart rate, core body temperature – the most critical measurement in heat stress – and other physiological parameters that detect incidents like heat stress.
The device sits comfortably in the ear, a highly effective site to monitor CBT accurately. User data is automatically analysed and sent in real-time to both the wearer via audio prompts and to a supervisor via the real-time dashboard, to allow immediate intervention when CBT increases.
Automated reports from wearable devices can help inform decisions about necessary changes to safety control measures and policies across an organisation. Using the data, organisations can evaluate the effectiveness of existing controls to determine whether they are providing the required protection for workers, or whether different controls could be more effective. Data insights derived from the devices can also help enhance operational efficiency, for instance, when assessing PPE for effectiveness to protect against heat exposure, or when implementing break schedules.
Importantly, each employee will have a different physiological response to high temperatures. For example, individuals who are yet to acclimatise, such as new recruits or people from traditionally colder climates, are generally at higher risk of heat-related illnesses as their bodies are unaccustomed to such challenging environments. Taking an individual approach to managing heat stress is vital. With wearables, each employee can have their own device and can be monitored during their shifts.
Over time, data insights paint a picture of individual responses to their environments and work stressors. Insights can inform tailored strategies that best support everyone individually and even help predict when heat stress is more likely to occur, allowing preventative measures to be taken.
Physiological monitoring, which provides real-time tracking information, will become a key requirement within workplace safety standards as temperatures rise. Fortunately, this technology is already safeguarding workers and abating my clients’ biggest fears.
Written by Leon Marsh, Founder & CEO of Bodytrak (14th March 2023)