Protect workers against the heat

Ahead of the international summit on climate change in Durban, a top medical researcher has warned of the “severe negative impacts” hotter weather in the near future will have on South African workers.

Professor Angela Mathee heads the environment and health research unit at South Africa’s Medical Research Council and is also the director of the World Health Organisation’s Collaborating Centre for Urban Health.

One of the world’s leading authorities on climate change, the United Kingdom’s Sir Gordon Conway—formerly chief scientist for Britain’s department for international development—has predicted that average temperatures in Southern Africa could rise by 4°C by 2100.

But Mathee warned that an increase of just 1°C in the next few decades could have “devastating results” for workers, the economy and society in general.

She recently led a pilot study that examined the consequences of working in hot weather, as part of an international study examining the effects of climate change on the health of workers. Mathee’s exercise focused on people involved in hard outdoor labour, such as road construction and farming, in Upington—one of the hottest places in South Africa and Johannesburg, the country’s largest work centre.

“The study indicated that many South African workers are already suffering from a wide range of health problems because of constant exposure to heat. Some of them are more obvious, like thirst and excessive perspiration, itchy skin, being very tired, having dry or bleeding noses and blistered skin,” she said.

As workers were exposed to increasingly higher temperatures, the range of their symptoms increased, Mathee said.

“They experienced severe leg pains, dizziness, feeling faint, insomnia, having backaches and headaches, and dehydration.”

Workers also reported deteriorating relationships with colleagues and relatives at home when working in hot conditions, said Mathee.

“Working in higher temperatures results in certain psychosocial effects. It can lead to increased aggression and conflict. The workers were telling us that on very hot days they become irritable, or they can’t sleep and they become angry with their family members for no other reason than the heat they are suffering.”

The higher the workplace temperature, said the professor, the greater the risk of on-the-job accidents.

“We found that at a certain consistent temperature of above 25°C you can’t work properly anymore. Some of the workers, in our discussions with them, were saying things like: ‘When it gets so hot we simply cannot keep up the pace of work, even in the morning.’ So it’s likely that worker productivity in the future is going to drop significantly,” Mathee said.

In the South American part of the international study, researchers found that relatively young cane cutters were suffering life-threatening kidney ailments because they were sweating so much every day and not replenishing lost liquids sufficiently.

Mathee made similar findings in South Africa. “Some of the workers were telling us that they have to carry as many as five to seven litres of water with them a day, and often that is not enough for them,” she said. Mathee maintained that many employers in South Africa were making “no effort” to ensure that outdoor workers were able to work as comfortably as possible.

“They aren’t supplying enough water, they aren’t providing shade. The workers’ schedules are not adapted for them to be able to cope with higher temperatures. They aren’t allowing workers to start working early in the day, for example, and aren’t allowing longer siesta periods in the hottest part of the day.”

But, said Mathee, there were “some good examples of good preparation for higher temperatures in the future in the private sector in South Africa”. She cited grape farms in the Northern Cape where summer temperatures often exceed 40°C.

“Their workers start working before dawn and have days that end much, much earlier. And when it becomes hot, by mid-morning, they shift their work to air-conditioned packhouses or warehouses.

“Then, in KwaZulu-Natal, some sugarcane farmers give their workers a quota of sugarcane that they have to deliver in a certain period of time. But when and how they do it is up to the workers.

So, many workers are working in the middle of the night with very strong lighting and avoiding the heat of the day entirely.”

Mathee insisted that the “main message” from her study was that South Africa had to “act immediately” to protect workers.

“People in many parts of the country are already working in conditions that are so hot that it is very uncomfortable for them and it’s putting their health at risk.

“There are a lot of basic public health measures that we could put in place right now to increase workers’ comfort and protect their health.”

Mathee said these included setting guidelines for work undertaken above particular temperature thresholds; considering new work schedules and rotations, for example, earlier starting times or longer midday lunch breaks; providing safe water supplies to workers in sun-exposed settings; educating workers and supervisors about the signs and symptoms of heat stress and related intervention measures; providing shade for breaks; and encouraging protective measures such as providing sun hats and sunscreen lotions.

Mia Malan works for the Discovery Health Journalism Centre at Rhodes University

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Mia Malan

Mia Malan

Mia Malan is the Mail & Guardian’s award-winning health editor and the founding director of the newspaper’s health journalism centre, Bhekisisa. She heads up a team of fifteen permanent and freelance staff members. She loves drama, good wine and strong coffee, not necessarily in that order. Read more from Mia Malan

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