Working in extreme heat: "This is unbearable, we are without air or awnings"

The maximum of the thermometers exceeded 40 degrees this Wednesday in many parts of the country. "This is unbearable, we are without air conditioning or awnings, with the sun beating down all day. It is infernally hot, the class is an oven," says Carlos, a teacher at a public school in Madrid. The meteorological authorities have launched the alert of a new heat wave, which they are (and will be) more and more frequent due to climate change. Occupational health experts urge measures to be taken to protect workers and not to trivialize extreme temperatures, a proven danger to health. Not only because of heat strokes, but also because of how they aggravate other pathologies and their relationship with an increase in work accidents, he warns a recent study of the 1º de Mayo Foundation and ETUI.

The first thing to understand the risks that workers face is to understand what episodes of high temperatures entail, such as the current heat wave that the AEMET has warned about. Are not "the normal"as the spokesperson for the Government of the Community of Madrid has pointed out, but refer to hot temperatures that exceed normal local weather conditions.

The AEMET highlighted in the following tweet how the temperatures so far in June have greatly increased the average of previous years.

"This is getting worse and worse, it's terribly hot," says Gustavo (not his real name), a worker renovating a building in the Usera neighborhood of Madrid. Around 1:00 p.m., his colleagues are on the roof in full sun, while he collects material below, on the facade, with a track of sweat on his shirt that reaches his abdomen and his hair soaked. The worker, over 45 years old, has been in the sector for six years and notes that "the heat starts earlier each time."

Although the Madrid Construction Agreement establishes the continuous summer day, to avoid the hottest moments, starting in July, Gustavo's boss has offered the staff to take advantage of this during the heat wave. "Luckily, we have said yes. Now it is hot, but after 3:00 p.m. it is impossible to work," says the worker, who celebrates the decision of his boss. "Many others are not doing anything, normal work is being done," he says.

This is the case of Mihai, a self-employed worker from Eastern Europe, a repairman for an insurance company. "They give us the notice and we go where the client asks," he says as he carries a bucket of paint in one hand and a sack in the other. "It's very hot, but only on the journeys, when I go to get material... At home it's not as bad as it is here," he consoles himself.

The insurer has not informed him of any adaptation of schedules or exceptional measures in the face of the heat wave. "I'm self-employed, I work all day and I go to the notices they send me," she says. Mihai points out that his schedule depends on the insurer's clients. "Even if I wanted to, I can't go to repair at 7 in the morning at a home. Do I get the client out of bed or out of the shower?" He laughs.

Employers are required to protect workers from workplace hazards, including excessive heat. Failure to do so means breaking the occupational risk regulations, with fines that can exceed 819,000 euros. As the labor expert Robert Gutiérrez recalls in this thread, for example, there are certain maximum temperatures in closed work spaces, which for sedentary jobs should not exceed 27 degrees.

"I would have liked to have a thermometer, but it's over 30 degrees here," Carlos (not his real name) said from the first hour in a classroom at a public school in the Community of Madrid. "Being in classes in full sun without air or awnings means sweating, but sweating. The children and us. Our pants get soaked from being in the chair," he gives as an example.

Workers from Crown Packaging Manufacturing Spain gathered this Tuesday at the gates of its plant in Sagunto to demand compliance with preventive measures in the face of the heat. "Last year, there were several heat strokes. They negotiated with the company to put cabins to cool off and combat this, but they have not done so. This year there has already been an incident, a slight heat stroke, but this is serious. We don't want to wait for a tragedy," explains Sergio Villalba, secretary general of the CCOO in the Camp de Morvedre region (Valencian Community).

Asked about it, in Crown Packaging Manufacturing Spain they refuse to make statements. "We're going to keep insisting. If they don't comply, we're going to go on strike with the squad," says Sergio Villalba.

One of the health risks of these heat waves, increasingly earlier in Spain, is its sudden nature whereby the population is suddenly subjected to much higher temperatures than usual without time to acclimatize. For this reason, the first days of these extreme episodes (like the ones we are experiencing) are especially dangerous.

Dangerous due to so-called "heat-related illnesses", such as dizziness and, in the most extreme case, heat stroke. The latter can be settled with death, as happened two summers ago to the day laborer Eleazar Blandón, who died of a heat stroke after being abandoned at the gates of a health center in Lorca (Murcia). Also to Raphael Lukewho died in 2017 `from heat stroke when paving a road in Seville and whose case is still pending.

But these blows are only "the tip of the iceberg" of the health damage caused by extreme heat, according to the investigation of the 1º de Mayo Foundation, carried out by the sociologist Claudia Narocki, a specialist in occupational risk prevention. Heat increases the risk of a wide variety of cardiovascular, respiratory and other diseases through multiple biological pathways. A reflection of this is observed in the increase in hospitalizations and deaths in these episodes, due to different pathologies, which several studies link to heat episodes.

Narocki explains that high temperatures also trigger deaths and claims due to work accidents of different types, with an increase in injuries in these contexts. In a study in this regard in the state of California, it was found that "when the ambient temperature exceeds 38ºC, the overall risk of injury increases by 10-15%", compiles the CCOO report.

Before the speeches that normalize the heat even in extreme cases –"It's natural that it's hot in June"–, the CCOO and UGT unions demand that the authorities specifically regulate compulsory preventive measures for extreme temperatures, to raise awareness and force compliance. Doing so is urgent, they consider, since "heat waves are becoming more frequent and intense due to the effects of climate change," recalls Ana García de la Torre, head of Occupational Health at UGT.

His counterpart in CCOO, Mariano Sanz, points to the Public Administrations in this regard. "They should take action and set an example, as employers and contractors, they should be the first to take action. There are many people who work for the Administration," warns the union representative. Mariano Sanz also insists on the need for the Labor Inspectorate to act, with specific actions on this matter, so that surveillance is perceived as something real by companies.

Javier, an employee of a state public body, works in an office in Madrid without air conditioning. "They have told us that he is broken," he points out, although last summer there was no air conditioning system either. "I have a fan," he says. Given the situation, he and several colleagues have gone home to telework. "But it annoys me that I have to pay for the air conditioning to work," he criticizes.

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