BRUSSELS/WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Ismael Garcia, 42, has spent the last 24 years cleaning the streets of Madrid, the capital of Spain, under the scorching sun. But this summer, something was different. His family was always looking for Garcia when he left to work in Madrid.
“Everyone said, ‘Be careful, don’t overdo it,'” Garcia told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The family’s concerns were correct. In July, another cleaning worker in Madrid collapsed from heat stroke and later died. I was 60. This prompted new measures to protect workers during the record heat wave.
Europe this summer was hit by a hotter and longer heat wave than usual, breaking several records. With climate change, heat waves are becoming more frequent, increasing the risk of accidents, illness and death from extreme heat.
There have been nine work-related deaths in Spain and six in France this year due to extreme heat, according to a summary by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), based on national media reports.
The UK announced on the 7th that there were more than 2,800 excess deaths among people aged 65 and over this summer. This is the highest number since 2004, when plans began to be drawn up to protect people’s health in the event of a heat wave.
It was the third hottest summer on record in the United States, and efforts are underway to make extreme heat an occupational hazard.
ETUC Senior Councilor Ignacio Dreste said, “This is a situation where every minute should be spent to save workers’ lives.”
Cleaners like Garcia, pictured at the top of the article, have warned about the dangers of extreme heat for years, but have been denied access to water and rest breaks, he said.
“Previous summers may have had a week or 15 hot days, but this year it was the other way around. There were only 15 mild days, and the rest of the day was extremely hot.” Garcia.
Only after the death of a cleaning worker in July did Madrid agree to work outside peak heat periods, allowing water breaks every 90 minutes.
“It’s a small step, but it will save a lot of lives,” Garcia said.
Research is ongoing into the harmful effects of extreme heat that can lead to disability and death, including heat stroke, heart disease, chronic kidney disease and respiratory disease.
According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), “heat stress” occurs when temperatures rise above 35 degrees Celsius in humid conditions.
Despite the dangers, European trade unions say legal systems setting maximum temperatures and minimum breaks for work have not kept up with global warming.
The ETUC study found that while Belgium, Hungary, Latvia, Slovenia and Spain have a combination of regulations to protect workers from extreme heat, other European Union countries have no specific legislation at all.
Belgium has adopted a policy based on physical activity, setting the maximum practical temperature at 29°C for light work and 18°C for heavy work.
In Spain, office temperatures must be kept below 27°C, with a maximum temperature of 25°C for light work. However, the regulation does not cover every type of worker or every facility.
Also, there is a lack of clarity and generality in the definition of “light work”.
The ETUC is calling for legally binding regulations to ensure the safety of all EU workers in the scorching heat, but introducing such comprehensive regulations in the EU will take five years of debate, It is not unusual that it took another two years to come in. force.
Meanwhile, the ETUC is working with the European Commission to develop recommendations that set guidelines for safe working practices in extreme heat.
ETUC deputy general secretary Claes Mikael Stahl said, “We cannot be complacent and wait for another year of scorching summers.”
In the United States too, workers are speaking out to declare that extreme heat is an occupational hazard. The movement became more pronounced after 2021, when record-breaking heat caused roads to cave in and power lines to melt.
Basil Darling is a delivery driver for United Parcel Service (UPS). In addition to the luggage, I once had to take one of my colleagues who fell ill due to the rising temperature in New York to the hospital.
“I could tell by the look on his face. Yeah, he felt like his life was being sucked out of him. He looked sick,” said Darling.
The colleague is in his 40s and has a pre-existing condition that makes him vulnerable to heat.
Darling compares UPS delivery trucks to “mobile ovens” when temperatures rise, but says it can be difficult to get workers’ concerns to management.
“If you don’t say ‘I got it in the ambulance,’ the management won’t take it seriously.”
Workers are demanding heat relief as part of wider contract negotiations.
Unlike some companies, UPS does not have air conditioning on all of its delivery trucks. The company explained that given the design of the car, even air conditioning would be ineffective in keeping the driver warm.
UPS spokesman Matthew O’Connor said in a statement that the health and safety of its workers “is our top priority”, adding that the company provides heat resistant clothing, cooling towels and installing fans as some of its various initiatives . have been taken.
Last year, the federal government launched the first ever national heat standard to prevent workers from being forced to work in extreme heat.
Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns for the United Farm Workers Union, said: “It would be nice to finally have a federal heat standard under consideration. We’ve been asking for it for decades. So,” she said.
Still, it can take years to develop rules at the federal level, so it’s important to push for regulation at the state level, Strater said.
Darling, the UPS driver, said lawmakers may need to be pressured to pass legislation before the next hot summer.
“If we don’t establish such laws and regulations, I think a lot of people will be reluctant to work outdoors,” Darling said. “The extreme heat conditions are affecting us, and we don’t see climate change going away.”
(Joanna Gill, David Sherfinski, translation by Erkleen)