Heat and the need to change work

Europe is experiencing heat at, or close to, levels never recorded before. This has caused the mainstream media to issue advice on how to avoid adverse health impacts from heat exposure. However, the necessary changes to work are not receiving the attention they should.

Australia has faced such situations before, especially in the last decade, so there is some generic occupational health and safety (OHS) available for translation to the European circumstance.

According to an article in The Guardian dated July 18 2022, trade unions are calling for a maximum temperature for work. They have not yet picked a figure, but 35C is likely to feature in discussions as this is the temperature in Australia where many construction workers “down tools”. This temperature and the response are included in the construction industry’s Enterprise Bargaining Agreements. At the moment, unions are thinking about what is readily achievable rather than thinking longer-term about how work will be forced to change. Lynsey Mann of union GMB is quoted:

“Bosses need to do everything possible to keep workplaces cool and, more importantly, safe. This can be as simple as letting people wear more casual clothing and providing proper hydration.
“High levels of UV exposure also mean that outdoor workers have a much higher risk of developing skin cancer. Simply allowing more breaks and providing sun cream and protective clothing, such as hats with neck covers, can help reduce this risk.”

Under OHS laws, employers are not required to do everything possible, only what is as far as is reasonably practicable. However, Mann does reflect the community’s and workers’ expectations of employers. For outdoor workers in Australia, all of Mann’s suggestions are standard practice, although not all workers or employers comply.

In The Guardian:

“The Cabinet Office minister, Kit Malthouse, has said that Monday and Tuesday may be “a moment to work from home” due to travel disruption…..”

(links added)

This is a reasonable suggestion, but England does not seem to have the same level of air conditioning in residences that Australia has, and most buildings are built for the extremes of cold rather than heat. So working from home may not be the best advice. The transport issue may be avoided, but the advice presents other hazards, such are the complications associated with the need to change, imposed by extreme heat and global warming.

The situation in England and Europe at the moment is that the public health and OHS risks of global warming have been shown to be unavoidable. The fragility of institutions, architecture, safety management, work, transport and all the other elements that constitute society is clear. The challenge for everyone is how do we (to use a favourite pandemic response word) pivot quickly to the new reality. Mann’s OHS is fine for the short term of a few days but offers only symptomatic relief.

Earlier this year, the International Panel for Climate Change released its latest climate impact report. SafetyAtWorkBlog looked at the work-related research mentioned in the report. Research evidence of socioeconomic impacts is available, but the OHS approach needs to be reviewed as the source of the problem cannot be eliminated. Most of the hazard control measures will need to occur at the Engineering level of the Hierarchy of Controls, meaning the redesign of structures or the addition of technological measures that create a safe workplace within an overheating environment. Airconditioning will likely be a big part of that option; transferring physical meetings online is another change at this level. This Engineering will need to be supported by Administrative level controls which will include the redesign of work practices. This may include rescheduling work into cooler hours, such as evenings for outdoor work.

The future of work is becoming scarier and scarier. Global warming has been the creeping hazard that most have been hoping would evaporate but is becoming more evident and critical. A more sudden disruption has come from the coronavirus pandemic, but the quick creation of vaccines has diffused the work changes needed in most workplaces. Facemasks look increasingly like becoming a seasonal control measure. (Facemasks for Winter, hats and long sleeves for Summer.) We have to face these fears and start planning for the world of work our children will face in fifty years.

In the IPCC article mentioned above, I concluded:

“Perhaps we need a futurist who focuses on the new safe systems of work that climate change has forced upon us.”

That futurist is still needed, and the current European experience may generate someone from that hemisphere with ideas that seem wacky now but sensible in 2070.

Kevin Jones

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