/ 17 February 2021

Outdoor workers wilt in rising heat

Workers Harvest Sugar Cane
Wild food plants are the “gifts” we get from the land but high levels of warming threatens them. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

On Kurt Stock’s sugar plantations his team of cane cutters start work as early as 3am, finishing by mid-morning before the real heat and humidity sets in in Pongola, KwaZulu-Natal.

“It gets hot here,” says Stock, the chairperson of the local grower council.
“So you go out early and you don’t sweat and lose liquid — [you are] working in a cooler environment.”

A recent study commissioned by the CMCC found how increasing temperatures in South Africa from climate change reduces the ability of people to work in sectors that usually have high exposure to heat, such as farming, construction, fishing and mining. 

Protective measures

Temperature rise due to climate change has negatively affected labour productivity in the country in recent decades and will keep damaging it, potentially to a higher extent than what has been estimated until now, the authors found.

A future scenario with severe climate change will see a reduction of per capita GDP of up to 20% by the end of the century compared to an idealised future without the impacts of a changing climate. 

Retha Louw is the chief executive of the Sustainability Initiative of South Africa (Siza) which works with the agricultural sector to ensure ethical and environmentally sustainable trade.

“For the producers who are part of the programme, looking towards audit outcomes and results, it’s clear that hats and sunscreen lotion are becoming part of personal protective equipment. It is not compulsory but as an example, it is becoming part of the risk analysis of a farm,” she says.

“Agri-workers start earlier in the mornings to avoid the heat – again, legislation and the Siza standard make provision to monitor working hours, no matter when they start or when they work. If they work a night shift there is legislation included in the Siza standard to allow for a night shift allowance and the same is relevant to day shifts.”

A decade ago, a pilot study for the high occupational temperature health and productivity suppression programme showed how particularly in Upington, where daily maximum temperatures may reach more than 40°C, workers reported a wide range of heat-related effects, including sunburn, sleeplessness, irritability, and exhaustion leading to difficulty in maintaining work levels and output during very hot weather.

Billions will be lost

The study found that few, if any, measures were being undertaken by employers to protect health or improve worker comfort.

In 2019, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) concluded that by 2030 the equivalent of more than 2% of total working hours worldwide is projected to be lost every year, either because it is too hot to work or because workers have to work at a slower pace. This is a loss equivalent to 80 million full-time jobs and with global economic losses of US$2 400 billion, according to the ILO report Working on a Warmer Planet: The Impact of Heat Stress on Labour Productivity and Decent Work.

This is a conservative estimate because it assumes that the global mean temperature rise will not exceed 1.5°C and that work in agriculture and construction – two of the sectors worst affected by heat stress – are carried out in the shade.

Lower-middle- and low-income countries are expected to suffer the most as they have fewer resources to adapt effectively to increased heat and higher rates of working poverty, informal and vulnerable employment, subsistence agriculture, and a lack of social protection. 

Caradee Wright, a senior specialist scientist in the environment and health research unit at the Medical Research Council, says employers need to be more aware of temperature and sun exposure health risks — and how such risks affect productivity. “For sun exposure, there is no legislation or guideline in South Africa to protect against ocular and skin exposure, for example against sunburn, skin cancer and cataracts,” she says.

Wright says Australia, the UK and the US have such legislation and guidelines. 

“Germany has made keratinocyte cancer an occupational disease, which can be claimed against if found to be from occupational exposure. For heat exposure, there is a bunch of stuff done for underground mining … but nothing for ambient exposure on the surface, as far as I know,” she says.

Wright says it would be difficult to have laws or rules to enforce not working when certain temperatures are reached, especially if they are likely to occur more often with climate change and global warming, as is happening in South Africa. 

“That said, something has to be done.” 

Anecdotally, Wright reports having seen road construction workers wearing helmets with side flaps and sunglasses and the use of gazebos for construction workers. 

“But this is not the norm. In Japan, all of this type of work is done at night. Partly because it is quieter and I am sure also because it is cooler and [with] less sun exposure.”

Increasing risk

A 2014 study, Climate change and occupational health: A South African perspective, found how climate change, and with it the predicted higher temperatures, changes in rainfall, and more frequent extreme weather conditions, will create increased health risks in  many workplaces. 

“In South Africa, and many other parts of the world experiencing a hot season each year, the effects of heat stress may be of greatest relevance to the large working populations in mining, agriculture, construction, quarries and outdoor services. Factory and workshop heat will also become an increasing problem in the numerous workplaces without effective cooling systems.”

Climate model trends for this century indicate that the heat exposure may increase by 2 — 4°C during the hottest months, “and this would change the occupational heat situation from ‘low risk’ to ‘moderate or high risk’ in much of SA”, according to the study.

Leon de Beer, the general manager of the National Wool Growers’ Association of South Africa, says wool sheep producers in very hot and dry areas allow for breaks when temperatures are at their highest.

“Mechanisation, however is another option, with the negative impact this will consequently have on jobs.”

The national department of health’s draft national heat-health action guidelines describe ignorance of the dangers of heat as one of the major challenges to preventing heat-related diseases in the workplace.

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, employers are responsible for ensuring that an employee is protected against high temperatures and related exposures. 

Measures could include adjusting working hours to start earlier in the day, lengthening break times, and protection against direct sunlight, such as through exterior shaded areas or an indoor ‘cool space’.