TThe Met Office issued its first severe heat warning this week, after it introduced the new category in June, warning of health risks in western England and Wales. High temperatures may be fun on the beach, but thousands of key workers will face unbearable working conditions. The heat should be a wake-up call for government to make work safer now, and take climate action that creates sustainable and long-term working conditions in the future.
In this sweltering heat, people today harvest berries and strawberries, pack items that are delivered in warehouses and distribution centers, and deliver food and documents on bicycles and scooters. Some of them will have to do these jobs without regular breaks or access to drinking water. Some are required to wear a uniform designed for cooler weather. Many of them are the same low-wage key workers who have risked infection through the pandemic, and are now exposed to dangerous temperatures.
Extreme heat can cause fatigue, fainting, dehydration, strokes and heart attacks, especially when working under stress. Industrial accidents can increase, as concentration levels diminish at high temperatures. Sun exposure brings additional risks: 4,500 cases of skin cancer each year in this country are believed to be caused by outdoor work. Often the biggest problems in factories, catering sites, and warehouses with a high proportion of low-paid workers: sweatshops in more ways than one.
Climate violence affects the most vulnerable communities and workers, in the global south but also in the UK. Low-wage workers, the disabled, blacks, and ethnic minorities are on the front line in the face of climate change — communities and individuals already facing racism and structural discrimination. It’s hard to stay safe if you have less control over your workplace, if you’re under pressure to work faster, or if you’re on a zero-hour contract. Unsurprisingly, the workplaces with the worst health and safety standards tend to be the non-union ones.
Suffocating workplaces are not inevitable. Employers can allow flexible working and keep workplaces cool so employees can work comfortably and safely. Access to drinking water, frequent breaks, and comfortable dress codes can help. Most importantly, employers need to listen to their employees, as they will have their own ideas about how best to deal with excessive heat.
Not all employers will take action on their own. Amid rising US temperatures, some Amazon warehouses reportedly tried to boost productivity during the heat wave by keeping “energy hours”, during which managers pushed warehouse employees to work harder for 60 minutes by rewarding faster workers with prizes.
We need to step up government in the face of the escalating climate crisis. UK law and official guidance do not specify a maximum temperature for workplaces. There are extremes of temperature for moving livestock, so why not a limit for workers toiling for eight hours or more in extremely hot conditions?
The TUC would like to see a duty on employers to protect workers from heat-related hazards. There should be an absolute maximum indoors of 3°C, with employers required to introduce cooling measures when the temperature reaches 24°C. Germany, Spain and China have clear health and safety rules that define temperature extremes.
Keeping workers safe also means dealing with the climate emergency. The UK has now set emissions reduction targets in line with 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 adviser on climate change. We need bold decarbonization plans to help prevent heat waves like these from becoming more dangerous and more common.
Building greener is the path to a positive future for workers across the country. It means protecting our homes and workplaces in the future, expanding public transportation and creating more green spaces. Better trains, more buses, homes that are cool in the summer and warm in the winter, and oak forests full of wildlife around our cities. We need to transform our industries so they can make electric cars, clean steel, and carbon-free chemicals. This way we can reduce emissions, boost local manufacturing, and preserve the UK’s historic industries.
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 set aside £18 per UK resident per year for the next decade in the “Ten Point Scheme”. Italy invests £140 per person per year, and Joe Biden is aiming for close to £300.
At TUC we have laid out a vision for what a proper green recovery should look like: investing £85 billion in rolling out faster broadband and renewable energy supply chains, in restoring the environment and in cleaner transport. This could create over a million high-quality jobs; Jobs in every community not only help us reach net zero, but also get good salaries and conditions. Jobs you can build your life and career on. The current heat wave makes it clear more than ever that we need to protect the workers who keep the country running.