Heatwave in India – implications for workers

It’s rare that the concerns of ordinary workers makes the news in Europe, but over the past few days there have been reports in the British press about fatalities being caused by a severe heatwave in India.

india_heatwave

(Picture Source; www.commondreams)

According to the Guardian over 2,200 people have died

Andhra Pradesh has been hit the hardest, with 1,636 people dying from the heat over the past month and a half, a government statement said. A further 561 people have died in neighbouring Telangana, said Sada Bhargavi, a state disaster management commissioner.

Environmental conditions have been severe. The Guardian reports

Daytime temperatures hovered between 45C and 47C (113-116 F) in parts of the two states over the weekend, 3-7C (5-12F) above normal, said YK Reddy, a director of the Meteorological Centre in the Telangana state capital of Hyderabad.

The risk from heat stress depends not only on the environmental conditions but also on other factors, particularly

  • workload
  • clothing
  • individual susceptibility

Workers carrying out heavy work for prolonged periods in hot conditions are particularly at risk as they generate significant “internal” heat as well as absorbing it from the environment. Susceptible individuals include the elderly and people who are malnourished. Not surprisingly, then, the majority of the people who have died during the heatwave have been the elderly and manual labourers working outdoors.

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Agricultural workers in India (source Wikipedia)

There are over 3 million construction workers employed in India (the figure is likely to be higher if “informal” workers are included) and many millions more working in agriculture (almost 50% of the workforce). Construction and agriculture are also major industries in other hot countries in the developing world, and there have been reports of numerous heat related illnesses and fatalities linked to manual work in hot conditions in countries such as Qatar, where there has been a boom in construction due to preparations for the 2022 World Cup.

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Construction workers in Qatar (toehk under a Creative Commons Licence via New Internationalist)

The most effective ways to minimise the risks are to prevent exposure or to introduce engineering controls supplemented with work organisation and protective clothing. However engineering controls are impractical in most cases for outdoor workers in the developing world and the so the main way to minimise the risk of workers being adversely affected is to restrict the working time through work:rest regimes or “self pacing” and other administrative /management measures such as providing plenty of cool drinking water. In practice, most employers are unlikely to look favourably on this due to the impact on productivity and profitability. Subsistence farmers are unable to afford the technology available in the developed world (such as air conditioned cabs and automation) that could be applied to reduce their heat exposure and workload and need to work hard for long hours to have a chance of growing enough to survive.

Extreme events like the current heatwave in India are likely to become more frequent in the future due to climate change and it’s not just the developing world that will be affected. The populations of Europe and the United States are also likely to face exposure to heat extremes.

These events present challenges to occupational hygienists. First of all we currently don’t have an adequate method of evaluating the risk in these situations, particularly in the developing countries. The widely used WBGT index has serious limitations and the more complex Predicted Heat Strain Index is far too complex to be used in most situations. So work needs to be done to develop a suitable approach to risk assessment for the developing world. Secondly, given the scale of the problem, there’s a need to find appropriate, effective strategies to reduce and control exposures. Neither are easy tasks. However, some good work has been done on this in countries including India and Abu Dhabi and so the third challenge is persuading employers to adopt the guidance.

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