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Heat at work: an often-underestimated risk

The effects of climate change increase heat-related risks for all residents of Canada. In general, heat waves increase the number of deaths and a spike in admissions to the emergency room.

However, the particular situation of workers is less well documented. What about those who have to deal with the heat for a living? A Canadian study on the health of workers faced with increasing temperatures addresses the situation.

“The striking things is that young men between the ages of 15 and 24 are the ones who are most affected, not just older people or those with a pre-existing illness,” according to Ariane Adam-Poupart, a specialist scientific advisor at the Institut national de santé publique du Québec and senior researcher on the workers and heat project.

“There are many types of occupations where heat can impact workers when protective measures are not taken or unavailable,” says Peter Berry, Senior Policy Analyst at the Climate Change and Innovation Bureau at Health Canada, who also contributed to the study.

Heat can certainly have an impact the health of those working outdoors in construction, in food production, forestry or mining, for example. But there also higher risks for those working indoors in certain sectors, where the effects of heat of can be significant, such as metallurgy, restaurants or laundry facilities.

Using data from workers’ compensation boards in five provinces, from Alberta to Quebec, analyses were done to understand the situation in various locations across the country.

We already know that heat can lead to many problems, including worker exhaustion, cramps, fatigue, and in extreme cases, even death. More indirectly, heat is also the cause of workplace accidents caused by discomfort, reduced alertness and fatigue.

“We are talking about accidents like cuts, breaks or burns, which occur more frequently in workplaces where it is very hot,” explains Ms. Adam-Poupart.

Acclimatizing to heat also plays an important role. When heat waves occur early in the spring, the effects of the heat can be amplified for those not used to it. People often get sick or injured when returning from vacation. We need to let our bodies get used to things again, and take more breaks in a cool location.

Looking ahead

In addition to examining the current situation, Ms. Adam-Poupart’s team also made predictions for the future. This was the first study of its kind for the health of workers. There are international studies on the decline of worker productivity that could be caused by global warming, but not on their health.

“We wanted to know what we could expect in 2050, given global warming,” explains Ms. Adam-Poupart.

Researchers noted that for each increase of 1°C in temperature, Quebec could expect an increase of 28 to 41% in workers compensated for heat-related health problems. The situation affects an even greater number of workers when considering heat-related injuries. “In 2050, we could see an even greater increase over today, when we take climate change into account,” adds Ms. Adam-Poupart.

“Public health authorities and occupational health and safety officials play a key role in reducing future risks,” says Mr. Berry. “The results of this study may inform the development of new programs or lead to review of existing ones to better protect workers exposed to heat.”

“I want to see a culture change,” says Ms. Adam-Poupart. “By talking about it and conducting studies, I hope to drive change.”

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