The scorching heat waves that swept across Europe this summer are breaking out hottest day ever recordings. This extreme weather, which scientists confirm is ‘virtually impossible without climate change’is already having serious consequences – killing workers in the line of duty unprecedented levels.
The death of José Antonio Gonzalez, a Madrid sweeper working for private contractor Urbaser on July 16 is a heartbreaking reminder that we need to adapt health and safety standards to account for rapidly rising temperatures. Gonzalez collapsed while toiling in the 41C sun.
The evidence that extreme temperatures cause problems on construction sites continues to mount. In 2019, the Center for Public Integrity found that the US Postal Service hadexposed about 900 workersto heat hazards since 2012, leading to muscle cramps, vomiting and loss of consciousness. As we’ve seen latelyareworkers are taking action to demand change from their employers, as more and more people realize that extreme temperatures pose serious risks to their health.
Last year, a group of workers in the United States filed a federal lawsuit against Amazon because people werefainting at work: ‘The internal temperature is too high. We have no ventilation, dusty and dirty fans that spread debris into our lungs and eyes, run at an uninterrupted pace and [we] pass out from heat exhaustion, bleed from the nose from high blood pressure and feel dizzy and nauseous,’ reads the complaint filed by workers at the largest Amazon warehouse in New York.
This year the drivers of UPS, the world’s largest package delivery company, are fighting back after heat-related incidents. In sweltering weather, a driver was filmed briefly collapsing on the porch of a home in Arizona. In California,the family of a 24-year-old driversaid their loved one died of heat stroke on a route.
72 million full-time jobs lost due to heat
The science behind all of these warnings is crystal clear: “Exposure to ambient heat and internal body heat from intense physical work can increase the risk of heat-related illnesses, including heat exhaustion and heatstroke – which can be fatal – as well as acute kidney injury. and traumatic injuries,” says june spectrum associate director of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Washington School of Public Health and co-author of a recent study on the impact of climate change on creating unsafe working conditions in Indonesia.
According to a recent study published in Nature , “37% of heat-related deaths during the hot season can be attributed to anthropogenic climate change and this increase in mortality is evident on all continents.” Moreover, the World Health Organization indicates that between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause an estimated 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress, with estimated direct health costsbetween 2 and 4 billion dollars per year by 2030.
Assuming a global temperature increase of 1.5°C by the end of the century in the “best case”, ILO estimatesaccording to workforce trends, by 2030 the percentage of total working hours lost due to heat stress could reach 2%, a loss in labor productivity equivalent to 72 million jobs full time.
Unions are the best protection for workers
In our new normal, where severe weather warnings will become more common each summer, unions can play an active role in pushing for new worker protections at the bargaining table. In the case of Spain, street cleaners in Madrid quickly mobilized after by Jose Antoniodeath and reached a new agreement to eliminate afternoon shiftat high temperatures.
In this hot world, union solidarity and activism for a just transition will literally mean the difference between life and death.
The Teamsters in the United States are demanding better thermal safety measures in their next round of negotiations with UPS. In Britain, the Trades Union Congress is calling for a new maximum indoor temperature of 30C – or 27C for those doing heavy work – for when work should stop.
While we know that company- or country-specific requirements for safe working in extreme heat are part of the solution, they primarily address the symptoms, not the disease. Unions must push for workplace reforms, but we must also demand responsive government policies to address our climate crisis. This includes supporting, promoting and demanding a just transition to a low-carbon economy where no worker is left behind.
In a world of increasingly extreme temperatures, union solidarity and activism for a just transition will literally mean the difference between life and death.