As record temperatures and heatwaves spread across the globe regardless, this change in weather is expected to ‘shake up’ the way we work
Earlier in July, Mr World Meteorological Organization recorded the hottest week on record. However, high temperatures have not abated as heat waves continue across Europe, North America, Asia, North Africa and beyond.
As the planet warms, people are getting stuck in persistent weather patterns for longer, says John P Abraham, professor of thermal sciences at the University of St Thomas School of Engineering, US.
“Usually heatwaves used to last for 1 to 2 days but now it lasts 3 to 5 days. “People who can only handle a day or two of extreme heat will have much more problems when it lasts much longer,” he says.
As scientists predict that the ongoing climate change will continue to raise temperatures and heat waves will become the norm, people’s lifestyles are changing dramatically. So also the way people work.
Employees need to know what could happen to them and companies also need to rise to the occasion and protect them.
Work indoors and outdoors
Changes in the workplace will fall into two categories, say experts.
The first is external and non-chilled environments, such as in agriculture or industry, in which high temperatures are not controlled.
In 2022 a street sweeper in Madrid died of heatstroke while working in extreme temperatures. Accordingly, academics say some of the biggest changes will likely occur in these types of work environments, with the goal of protecting workers.
“Working outside in the heat will require shorter shifts with more breaks but also more overnight work,” says Abraham.
However, although it is possible that this group of workers will see the hours shift later in the evening, this approach is not the solution to the problem and carries risks.
First, he says, nighttime temperatures are getting warmer faster than daytime temperatures.
“If workers experience the heat during the day at work, but the nighttime temperatures are so hot that their bodies can’t cool down, they’re going to have a much harder time the next day,” he explains.
Safety issues too, such as visibility, could pose problems.
For workers in non-temperature-controlled environments, Abraham believes air-conditioned spaces will become commonplace, and employers will need to make sure breaks are taken for workers to cool their body temperatures down enough to work again.
Workers indoors or in cold environments may be comparatively safer than those who expose themselves to extreme temperatures on the job, but they should also expect changes in their work routine.
“Modern working arrangements such as remote working, hybrid working, four-day and six-hour shifts instead of eight hours are proving useful in hot weather,” says Mansoor Soomro, senior lecturer in sustainability and international business, leadership, management and human resources at Teesside University International Business School, in Britain.
“These arrangements reduce commuting which can further exhaust workers. They also feel more comfortable in the warmth of their home because they can dress however they want.”
In both environments, some workers are already changing their hours to start earlier and finish before temperatures peak at midday, which Soomro predicts will become more common.
The role of employers
Employers can also introduce new measures for employees.
Soomro says some employers are conducting periodic heat risk assessments to identify some of the groups most vulnerable to rising temperatures, including the elderly, pregnant women and workers with disabilities.
“These people can then be given allowances and additional facilities when warranted,” he says.
He also expects more employers to begin conducting these checks as the extreme heat persists.
Likewise, he predicts that companies will begin implementing specific heat-related health and wellness initiatives. These may include workshops on managing heat stress or fitness and nutrition guidelines to help workers adapt to a changing climate.
Infrastructure investment will also be important to the issue. “Companies are investing in creating heat-resistant work environments that include sustainable building infrastructure with better air conditioning,” says Soomro.
Changing the working day in response to climate change also makes good business sense for employers.
“Heat-related discomfort negatively affects work performance and productivity,” says Soomro.
Companies want to avoid the health effects of heat and heat conditions as much as possible.
“Workers because of the heat, suffer because they are sick, lose work days and pay and their family life can be affected. For employers, on the other hand, they suffer the consequences of medical care, lost productivity and legal disputes.”
While protecting workers is a burden for some companies, Abraham and Soomro agree that legislation needs to play an important role, and quickly.
The good news is that some governments are already enacting laws that address warming.
Spain, following its hottest April on record, has announced new laws for both business owners and workers.
Alongside financial support for businesses affected by the drought, the new legislation states that when weather conditions reach the orange danger signal (significant danger) or red (extreme danger), it will be mandatory for employers to adjust working conditions, including reducing or modifying the hours of the working day.
Of course, despite the urgency of the heat wave, surveys show that most countries are completely unprepared to respond quickly.
A July 2023 report from the University of Oxford highlighted an “unprecedented increase in cooling demand”.
Their research showed that the energy needed for cooling by 2050 is projected to be equivalent to the combined electrical capacity of the United States, the European Union and Japan in 2016.
The research also shows that locations unaccustomed to extreme heat were the most unprepared, with worst-hit countries including Ireland, the UK and Finland.
Climate change and the future it brings to work is uncertain. But experts say rising temperatures will undoubtedly completely change work as we know it.
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