TThe Met Office issued its first extreme heat warning this week, after introducing the new category in June, warning of health risks in West England and Wales. High temperatures can be fun on the beach, but thousands of key workers will face unbearable working conditions. The heat should be a wake-up call for the government to make work safer now and take climate action that creates sustainable and sustainable working conditions in the future.
In this heat today, people are harvesting raspberries and strawberries, packing deliveries to warehouses and distribution centers, delivering food and documents on bicycles and mopeds. Some of them will have to do this work without regular breaks or access to drinking water. Some are required to wear uniforms designed for much cooler weather. Many are the same low-paid key workers who risked taking us through the pandemic and are now exposed to dangerous temperatures.
Extreme heat can cause exhaustion, fainting, dehydration and lead to strokes and heart attacks, especially when working under pressure. This can increase industrial accidents, as concentration levels decrease at high temperatures. Exposure to the sun brings additional risks: 4,500 cases of skin cancer each year in this country are thought to be due to work outdoors. The biggest problems often lie in manufacturing plants, foodservice sites and warehouses with a high proportion of low-paid workers: sweatshops in more ways than one.
Climate violence hits the most vulnerable communities and workers hardest, in the south of the world but also in the UK. Low-paid workers, people with disabilities, blacks and ethnic minorities are on the front lines of climate change – communities and individuals already facing racism and structural discrimination. It’s harder to stay safe if you have less control over your workplace, are under pressure to work faster, or have a zero hour contract. Not surprisingly, workplaces with the worst health and safety standards tend to be the ones that are not unionized.
Stifling workplaces are not inevitable. Employers can allow flexible working and keep workplaces cool so staff can work safely and comfortably. Access to clean water, more frequent breaks, and relaxed dress codes can all help. Most importantly, employers need to listen to their staff as they will have their own ideas on how best to deal with excessive heat.
Not all employers will act on their own. Amid soaring temperatures in the United States, some Amazon warehouses have reportedly tried to increase productivity during the heatwave by organizing “feeding hours”, during which officials pushed warehouse staff to work even harder for 60 minutes by rewarding the fastest workers with prizes.
We need the government to step up in the face of the escalating climate crisis. UK law and official guidelines do not set a maximum temperature for workplaces. There are maximum temperature levels for transporting livestock, so why not maximum for workers working eight hours or more in sweltering conditions?
The Trade Union Congress wants employers to have a duty to protect workers from heat-related risks. There should be an absolute indoor maximum of 3 ° C, with employers required to introduce cooling measures when the temperature reaches 24 ° C. Germany, Spain and China all have clear health and safety rules setting maximum temperatures.
Ensuring worker safety also means dealing with the climate emergency. The UK has now set emission reduction targets based on expert advice. But its climate policies are far behind what is needed to meet the Paris agreement, according to the Climate Change Committee, the UK’s independent climate change adviser. We need bold decarbonization plans to help prevent heatwaves like this from becoming more dangerous and more common.
Rebuilding more environmentally is a path to a positive future for workers across the country. This means making our homes and workplaces sustainable, developing public transport and creating more green spaces. Better trains, more buses, houses that are cool in summer and warm in winter, and oak forests teeming with wildlife around our cities. We need to transform our industries so that they can make electric vehicles, clean steel and chemicals without carbon. In this way, we can reduce emissions, boost domestic manufacturing and keep historic industries in the UK.
But despite all the government’s promises, the reality is that the UK is investing less in a green recovery than any other G7 country except Japan. The government has allocated £ 18 per UK resident per year over the next decade in its ’10 point plan’. Italy is investing £ 140 per person per year and Joe Biden was aiming for almost £ 300.
At TUC, we presented a vision of what a true green recovery should look like: investing £ 85bn in deploying high-speed supply chains and faster renewables, in catering to the environment and cleaner transport. This could create over a million high quality jobs; jobs in every community that not only help us reach net zero, but also at good wages and on good terms. Jobs you can build a life and a career on. The current heatwave shows more than ever that we must protect the workers who make the country run.