By Catherine Ramnarine and Daniel Nancoo
Rising temperatures and extreme weather can have a significant impact on employee health and safety. President of the Industrial Court, Her Honour Mrs. Deborah Thomas Felix, highlighted this issue during her recent address on the occasion of the opening of the 2023-2024 law term, specifically touching on the risks arising from heat stress, air pollution and environmental disasters and calling upon stakeholders to implement adaptation and mitigation efforts in order to protect the well-being of workers in a changing climate.
What should employers be doing in order to manage the impact of climate change on their workforce?
As a starting point, employers should examine health and safety risks posed by climate change. Under Section 13A of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (“OSH Act”), employers have a duty to make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the health and safety risks that employees are exposed to while at work, and to identify what measures may be necessary in order to mitigate those risks. In keeping with this duty employers should consider (i) the specific risks posed by rising temperatures, heat waves and other symptoms of climate change and (ii) the measures that may be necessary to mitigate those risks, in the context of their specific operations.
The risks will vary depending on the nature of each employer’s operations. The level of a worker’s exposure to rising temperatures may, for example, vary depending on the geographical location of the employer’s business, the type of work that the worker is carrying out, and whether work is done outdoors or indoors. The types of protective measures that employers should adopt will, likewise, vary based on their specific circumstances. However, below are some examples of mitigating measures that might be considered, particularly in the context of outdoor work and/or physical labour:
This can be done by educating workers on what heat stress is, how it affects their health and safety, and how it can be prevented. In any warm environment, the human body relies on its ability to get rid of excess heat to maintain a healthy internal body temperature. This happens naturally through sweating and increased blood flow to the skin. If this doesn’t happen quickly enough, body temperature rises, and heat stress can occur. Workers may experience symptoms including thirst, irritability, heat rash, heat exhaustion, or heat stroke which includes brain dysfunction such as slurred speech, confusion, disorientation or even coma.
In tandem with education, there is merit in establishing training programmes for workers before commencing work in hot environments with each program tailored to the different worksites, if applicable. A heat stress training programme should be provided to both workers and their respective supervisors that covers the following:
• Recognition of the signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses and administra¬tion of first aid.
• Causes of heat-related illnesses and steps to reduce the risk.
• Effects of other factors (drugs, alcohol, obesity, etc.) on tolerance to occupational heat stress.
• The importance of immediately reporting any signs or symptoms of heat-related illness in themselves or in co-workers to a supervisor.
• Procedures for responding to signs or symptoms of possible heat-related illness and for contacting emergency medical ser¬vices.
Supervisors specifically ought to be trained on:
• The procedures to follow when a worker has symptoms of heat-related illness, including emergency response procedures.
• Monitoring weather reports.
• Responding to hot weather advisories.
Acclimatisation is the result of the body’s gradual adaptation and increased tolerance to working in a hot environment, which builds up over time. Employers should ensure that workers are acclimatised before they work in a hot environment. This can be done in a stepwise process over a 7 to 14-day period. New workers will naturally need more time to acclimatise than those with pre-existing exposure, and absence for a week or more may require re-acclimatisation. They should be allowed to gradually increase workloads and physical demands and take more frequent breaks at the start of their employment as they build tolerance for working in the heat. The level of adaptation for each worker will be relative to physical fitness and heat stress experienced. It is also important to consider gender differences, as women require greater intensity, frequency, and duration of heat exposure for adaptation.
Workers should be encouraged to hydrate regularly and take regular rest breaks when working in the heat. The onus falls on the employer to provide the means for appropriate hydration of workers. This includes ensuring that there is a reliable and adequate source of clean, cool water on the job site.
Along with regular hydration should be regular rest breaks. New and/or unacclimated workers should be afforded more frequent rest breaks or shorter work shifts. It is also important to provide shade in outdoor spaces.
Adjusting Work Schedules:
Employers can consider adjusting work schedules during heat waves. Where operations can be conducted either in the early morning or the evening/night-time, employers may opt to schedule more strenuous activity at these times. Employers may also consider shorter shifts and/or more frequent breaks
Clothing and PPE:
It is also important to ensure that employees wear appropriate clothing. Certain personal protective equipment (PPE) e.g. certain types of respirators, impermeable clothing, and head coverings can increase the risk of heat illness, so employers should limit heat exposure to employees who may be required to utilise same for other health and safety reasons. Employers may choose to explore auxiliary cooling systems, such as reflective clothing, water-cooled garments or cooling vests.
While the above mitigation measures may be more suited to outdoor and/or physical work, indoor work is not without risk. Workers may be at risk if they work where there are indoor heat-generating appliances such as in bakeries, kitchens, and laundries, in manufacturing with heat sources such as furnaces. It is important to note that employers are mandated by the OSH Act to ensure that their premises are adequately and suitably ventilated by either a functioning air-conditioning system or by the circulation of fresh air. Therefore, in such circumstances, employers with indoor workspaces may also need to consider heat reducing measures to reduce workers’ exposure to heat hazards and illness. These can include using air conditioning systems, ensuring access to portable fans, increasing the ventilation of the workspace to bring in cooler air and increase air flow, using reflective or heat-absorbing shielding and barriers and reducing steam leaks, wet floors, or humidity throughout the workplace.
Climate change is here to stay. As the extreme heat continues to worsen, employers must adopt a long-term approach. A long-term action plan should incorporate a communication plan that includes what to communicate, to whom, and when in the event of heat hazard or heat illness emergency; strategic building and project planning to ensure that all indoor and outdoor workspaces are designed with measures to reduce heat exposure. At the end of the day, workers are a business’ most valuable asset and the necessary measures and investment ought to be taken to protect them now and in the future.