A hotter planet will expose the divisions in the world of work – The Irish Times

As Britain was swelteringly hot during the country’s hottest day ever last month, supermarket delivery carts roamed the streets as usual to deliver shopping to Poble’s homes. But while the trucks have technology to keep food and drink cold in the back, a surprising number don’t provide the same service to the people at the front.

Sainsbury’s, for example, assured me that their trucks do not have air conditioning in their taxis. The supermarket chain said it was giving drivers more breaks, cold drinks and a casual dress code during the heat wave.

Old Tesco trucks also don’t have air conditioning, although their new electric trucks do. The company said drivers without air conditioning are “able to stay safe and comfortable with ventilation, regular breaks and plenty of water.” Ocado told me that three-quarters of its fleet is fitted with air conditioners, and that will soon rise to 90 percent. Meanwhile, Waitrose has air conditioning in all of its trucks.

Air conditioning is not usually fitted as standard and costs around £1,000 more per truck, according to Justin Laney, Waitrose fleet manager. “Anyone who does such work,” he said, “it is very difficult and quite manual, sometimes you are asked to lift heavy loads up the stairs, and it is quite reasonable to give the person the best possible comfort when in the truck.”

High temperatures have long been a danger to outdoor workers such as construction workers in hot regions such as the Middle East. But as the planet warms and the frequency of heat waves increases, the range of countries, workers and employers affected is set to expand. The chance of a maximum daily temperature exceeding 35°C somewhere in the UK has increased from once every 15 years in the mid-20th century to once every five years today, according to one Met Office study.

As a result, more employers have to factor in the consequences – whether for health, safety or productivity. Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn has halted home deliveries in the Netherlands completely at the height of Europe’s heat wave, saying it was “not responsible for allowing our delivery workers to work under these weather conditions”.

The most obvious occupational hazard is overheating. Heat stress can cause muscle cramps, fainting, and fatigue. Heat stroke can also kill. Older people are less able to handle higher temperatures – a particular concern as the working population ages, as in Europe. Last month, a 60-year-old street cleaner in Madrid died of heat stroke after collapsing at work.

Workplace accidents occur frequently in hot weather as well, possibly due to sweaty hands or low levels of concentration. A study published last year by the University of California at Los Angeles compared records from more than 11 million workers’ compensation claims in California with local weather data. On days with temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit (about 32 degrees Celsius), workers were 6-9 percent more likely to be infected. When the temperature exceeded 100 F, the risk was 10-15 percent higher.

Some long-term health risks. In Central America and other regions, abnormally large numbers of young workers in hot conditions such as sugarcane plantations have been dying of chronic kidney disease in recent decades. Researchers don’t know for sure why this is, but many believe exposure to heat and drought are important factors, possibly combined with agricultural chemicals.

Then there is productivity. The International Labor Organization says that at 33-34°C, a worker who works at moderate intensity loses 50 percent of his ability to work. It predicted that by 2030, the equivalent of more than 2 percent of total hours worked worldwide will be lost each year, because it is too hot to work or people are working slower. In South Asia and West Africa, this figure could be as high as 5 percent.

How will employers adapt? Some of the procedures are straightforward. UK supermarket chains can put air conditioning in new trucks, for example. Tesco plans to make its entire home delivery fleet electric and air-conditioned by 2028. Sainsbury said it would review its measures to keep workers cool and “make any necessary changes if needed”.

Other problems are more difficult. One study of American farm workers found that increases in rest time and provision of air-conditioned rest spaces would be effective but may also affect farm productivity, farm worker earnings, and/or labor costs.

Unions in the UK and EU are pushing for laws on working temperature extremes. Only a few European countries now have legal limits ranging from 28°C to 36°C. However, it is workers in precarious jobs with little union presence who are most at risk.

Informal employment and weak safety nets are prevalent in areas most exposed to rising temperatures. Even in rich countries, studies show that agricultural workers who work at piece rates are more likely to suffer from heat stress than those who are paid by the hour, because their income depends on how quickly they work. Piece rates are also common in the temporary job economy.

It is often said that the pandemic has divided the world of work into those who can work at home and those who cannot, but in truth, the virus has mostly exposed the cracks in inequality that already existed. A warm planet would likely do the same. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022

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