Governments must formulate policies specifying the maximum temperature at which an individual is allowed to work. To beat the impact of heat stress, social protections in the form of insurance and social assistance must be provided.
ASK any student, businessman, or professional what they do in the afternoon of June – when the Sun is at its peak. The most probable reply would be staying indoors, and availing of cooling technologies. However, the situation is completely different when the same question is asked of construction labourers, factory workers, street hawkers and farmers, among others. Due to economic necessity, they have no choice but to indulge in outdoor work irrespective of record-breaking temperature.
It is reflective of the vulnerable condition of workers that the focus of governments is only on mitigating rising temperatures, leaving outdoor workers to fight against heat on their own.
Why is the rising heat wave a cause of concern?
The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (‘IPCC’) has categorized heat waves as one of the most extreme weather conditions associated with climate change. Rising temperatures and heat waves have become common phenomena in India due to global warming. In India, heat wave-related deaths were reported in 2016 to have increased by 296 per cent in the previous 23 years. From Rajasthan, Delhi and Telangana to Kerala, the whole nation is affected, to the extent that daily activities come to a halt in the scorching heat. But there exists a class of labour force, such as agriculture labourers, construction workers, vendors, auto drivers, and delivery people, who continue to work to earn their livelihood in the sweltering heat.
In India, heat wave-related deaths were reported in 2016 to have increased by 296 per cent in the previous 23 years. Additionally, India loses 101 billion hours a year on account of heat, which is equal to 35 million people working eight hours a day.
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The impact of working in such a hot environment is detrimental to the health and livelihood of workers. The matter becomes a cause of concern in light of the fact that about half of the Indian workforce works outdoors. Additionally, India is experiencing an early onset of summer with record-breaking temperatures in March and April due to climate change. Various adverse outcomes for both physical and mental health, even extending to premature death, are caused by consistent heat exposure.
Heat stress is defined as heat above what the body can tolerate without suffering from any physiological impairment. Excess heat during work hours reduces the physical capability of workers, thus reducing their productivity. It is essential to maintain body temperature near 37°C, failing which workers may face dehydration, fall sick, face wage-cuts and bear the burden of hospital bills.
Lacking the backing of stringent penal laws, these guidelines have been openly violated.
A study published last year by British scientific journal Nature claimed that India loses 101 billion hours a year on account of heat, which is equal to 35 million people working eight hours a day. This situation is worrying in rural employment, especially in agriculture, and urban construction. The IPCC’s fifth assessment report provides that more than 20 per cent of work output would be reduced in the second half of this century in the absence of any mitigation or adaptation steps.
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What are the heat wave policies adopted by India and other countries?
The United States Department of Labour has provisions for heat-related deaths and applies a 20 per cent rule to inculcate heat tolerance and reduce death cases simultaneously. Australia has loosely defined laws, leaving it to the discretion of employers to take reasonable steps and ensure the safety of their workers. The United Kingdom has provisions for minimum temperatures but not the maximum, leaving workers vulnerable.
In India, the Odisha labour department issued guidelines in 2019 to avoid construction work from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Recently, the Karnataka State Disaster Management Authority rolled out a plan to deal with heat waves. Major provisions include non-working hours from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., cooling centres in public places and temples, among others, and the adoption of “cool-roofs” to provide thermal comfort. However, lacking the backing of stringent penal laws, these guidelines have been openly violated.
Unfortunately, the Union Government too missed the opportunity to include provisions to tackle this menace in the Code on Occupational Safety, Health, and Working Conditions, 2020.
What are the possible solutions?
To tackle this, India requires practical policy solutions in the form of mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation means reducing the rising temperatures, whereas adaptation is adjusting policy actions according to the changing needs of the country.
Mitigation could be achieved by sustainable agriculture, decarbonisation, and electrification of transport sinks of greenhouse gases, among other things. In agriculture, drip irrigation could replace existing water-intensive cropping patterns. Using the concept of urban greens via green roofs or urban forests, the level of temperature could be prevented from rising. Investment in this area is attracted by subsidies on urban forests, rooftops, or well-managed community gardens.
Outdoor workers in India are on the frontlines, facing the brunt of rising temperatures. To ensure their well-being, the temperature is required to be maintained below 2°C. Despite these short-term efforts to mitigate heat waves, the global temperature is set to rise due to non-performance on the part of big emitters like the United States, the European Union, and China. Thus, what we essentially require here is adaptation.
Up to 30 per cent of labour losses could be recovered by shifting working hours from hotter to cooler times, that is, afternoon for rest, and early morning and till late evenings for work
Changing the work hours from early morning to noon and resuming after 5 p.m. could be helpful. The Nature study provides that up to 30 per cent of labour losses could be recovered by shifting working hours from hotter to cooler times, that is, afternoon for rest, and early morning and till late evenings for work; however, the mechanism would not work where the impact of global warming is high.
According to the general medical journal Lancet, 99 per cent of climatic losses in low-income countries are not insured. Transfers, subsidies, or insurance payment schemes could be rolled out to settle losses with monetary support. The amount of money may be determined on the basis of the intensity of heat, the prevalent poverty, health implications, alternate sources of income, and so on. Schemes may be rolled out and transfers made for food or direct bank transfers to the account of individuals. The burden of the economic scheme could be borne by the government as well as a public-private partnership as an insurer.
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It should be remembered that actions taken today will help reduce the impact of global warming and heat stress levels on labour productivity not just today, but for posterity. Governments must formulate policies specifying the maximum temperature at which an individual is allowed to work. To beat the impact of heat stress, social protections in the form of insurance and social assistance must be provided. These policy steps are necessary for the well-being of outdoor workers; otherwise, the situation is going only to worsen in the near future.