Nature and Biodiversity

How we must adapt our workplaces to cope with extreme heat

As heat waves increase, adapting the workforce and workplace to extreme heat is top-of-mind for business leaders and policymakers globally.

As heat waves increase, adapting the workforce and workplace to extreme heat is top-of-mind for business leaders and policymakers globally. Image: REUTERS/Dustin Chambers TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Yommy Chiu
Tabit Xthona Lee
Senior Consultant, Health, Mercer Marsh Benefits
Daniel Murphy
Industry Communities Specialist, World Economic Forum
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Climate and Nature

  • Extreme heat is becoming a growing problem worldwide.
  • Employers must take short, mid and long-term views to protect their workforces from extreme heat.
  • As the Earth warms, innovative strategies and investments are needed to build societal and economic resilience to extreme heat.

Humans are losing the race against extreme heat. The body’s ability to adapt is being tested as temperature records shatter worldwide, causing increases in heat exhaustion and heatstroke for vulnerable people and communities around the world.

Last year, an estimated 62,000 lives were lost in Europe alone due to extreme heat. In the US, 40 workers die from heat annually, mainly in outdoor jobs such as farming, construction and package delivery.

Extreme heat is associated with increased mental health conditions, such as depression, and it exacerbates a range of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. It is the deadliest climate risk, responsible for almost half a million deaths per year globally. However, data is lacking in many countries in the Global South, which experience some of the most dire effects of rising temperatures.

Beyond the impacts on worker health and well-being, extreme heat is causing myriad economic impacts - affecting vital supply chains, slowing down business operations and harming labour productivity. Globally, 675 billion hours are lost every year because of excessive heat and humidity, amounting to roughly 1.7% of global GDP.

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With some 940 million people active in agriculture worldwide, farmers are set to be the worst hit by rising temperatures. According to the International Labour Organization, the agricultural sector will be responsible for 60% of global working hours lost from heat stress by 2030. These consequences are not evenly distributed, with some of the poorest communities in the world, such as West Africa, South East Asia and Latin America, standing to lose the most from heat-fueled economic slowdowns.

As heat waves increase, adapting the workforce and workplace to extreme heat is top-of-mind for business leaders and policymakers throughout the global economy amid an increasingly volatile climate risk landscape.

While the situation feels, and is, monstrous, there are opportunities for action, especially for employers, as they support and protect their workforce. First, we need to change our mindset from this being a weather anomaly to being the new norm that we need to adjust for. Let’s break it down into three-time horizons – short-term, medium-term and long-term.

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Employers acting on extreme heat in the short-term

The role of an employer becomes increasingly important as temperatures continue to soar. Heat stress represents a significant threat to companies because of its effects on human health. Heat waves can cause exhaustion, worsening mental health, diabetic complications and even strokes. Projections of 2% of total working hours could be lost yearly due to heat stress at work, representing more than $4 trillion annually by 2030.

Employers can protect their employees by taking a preventative approach. They can educate employees on what heat stress is, how it affects their health and safety and when to know when hot is too hot – and for whom.

Employers can adapt work schedules. When extreme heat makes it unsafe for workers, employers will have to shift when people work and we’re already seeing this in action. Farm workers worldwide already work at night. This is ramping up in other sectors, including construction and transportation, where employers embrace more overnight work or early morning starts.

Employers can plan for prolonged extreme heat events. In some situations, employers might need flexibility in their work schedules, such as shorter working hours and extended rest periods. A big challenge for employers is how to budget for such an event. The value of insurance could be considered to address the volatility and likelihood of such events when trying to cost them. Parametric payouts, for example, allow for spending flexibility, and employers could plan to bring on extra staff to cover shorter workdays while mitigating any overall loss of productivity.

Employers can also review workplace safety guidelines around extreme heat. This includes internal and external policies. Although many government policies are still developing in this space, groups such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in the US are beginning to act on extreme heat, launching a Heat Illness Prevention Campaign, releasing guidelines for Heat Hazard Recognition and taking action against employers who fail to comply with heat safety standards. These efforts are still in their early stages.

The challenge is the perceived short-term misalignment of incentives for employers and employees. Financial constraints could hinder employers looking to implement a heat action policy and plan for the company. Similarly, workers might not be motivated to comply with these safety measures because it impacts their pay. Farm workers, for instance, are often paid a 'piece rate'. While enforcement is spotty, it is ramping up. OSHA recently sued a Florida farm labour contractor for $15,000 after the heat-fueled death of a 28-year-old worker.

Employers acting on extreme heat in the medium-term

Looking to the mid-term, employers can deploy technology-assisted heat stress monitoring.

Using technology to move beyond policies is one way to protect the workforce better. Even with the most generous policies in place, some industries are where workers are disincentivized to take breaks, either personally or by their manager.

By using technology to monitor body temperature, employers can create policies free from judgment and can improve audit credibility. We’re starting to see these strategies in action with solar installers using wearable thermometers and drones remotely monitoring temperature, as was done during the COVID-19 pandemic in Bengaluru, India.

It is also possible to retrofit the workplace. Air conditioning, which may not have been historically necessary, can be added, or alternative cooling systems can be explored, such as radiant cooling. One benefit of radiant cooling is that it does not require dehumidification, which can account for 60% of air conditioners' energy budgets in humid locations. Additionally, this process can include re-evaluating where cooling is necessary. For mobile workers, this includes their transportation. UPS recently announced that it is adding air conditioning to its delivery trucks after over a hundred heat-related illnesses and one death.

Tracking the efficacy of a heat-health strategy over time is another method that can be employed. Consider protecting any investment in retrofitting a workplace with improvement outcomes expected over time. This can include maintenance on technology and urban planning for building design, location and transit access points that can reduce heat exposure for employees, especially as the workforce ages. For example, if the workplace is retrofitted with radiant cooling, one way to protect the adaptation investment is insuring against unforeseen physical loss or damage to the machinery.

Heat should also be discussed during labour contracting and negotiations. Unions are raising this issue, striking as necessary. A trade union in Greece recently announced a recurring four-day strike until methods of improving heat-related safety conditions were identified.

Employers acting on extreme heat in the long-term

In the long term, employers should prepare for public policy change. While many countries have no or limited rules about working in extreme heat, this is likely to change as increasing percentages of the workforce must routinely face this issue. As mentioned before, this will probably be an uphill battle as many of the policies that protect workers also impact income and/or productivity.

Catalysing public-private partnerships for longer-term investment needs should also be integrated into long-term plans. While we focus on the workplace and the pivotal role of employers in protecting the workforce against future extreme heat risk, we recognise the need for partnership and investment across public entities and private capital. The long-term benefits for employers and employees include the availability of shading infrastructure (i.e., trees, covered walkways, etc.) and urban ventilation pathways. Secondary benefits of shading infrastructure and urban ventilation reductions include improved mental health, reduced stress levels and better overall air quality, to name a few.

Extreme heat has a material impact on population health, mortality and productivitiy

In the US, extreme heat kills more people than hurricanes, floods and tornados combined. Extreme heat is dangerous across all segments of society, but people who live and work in dense urban environments have a higher risk.

Furthermore, rising temperatures seriously impair the performance and health of your greatest assets – your people. A decrease in worker productivity can lead to further downstream consequences, including lower worker incomes and greater financial strains on individuals and families. Cities could also see losses in sales, income and real estate tax revenues.

As the Earth warms, short-, medium- and longer-term innovative strategies and investments are needed to build the societal and economic resilience to deal with extreme heat.

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