ABU DHABI // A hospital emergency department had to call in off-duty doctors and nurses this week when an alarming surge in heat exhaustion cases took it by surprise. Doctors at the Al Mafraq Hospital emergency room treated 82 labourers on Sunday, all suffering the effects of high temperatures and humidity. The usual number in summer is one or two a day.
Some of the men had been brought to hospital in "semi-conscious" states as a result of severe dehydration, said Dr Anwar Sallam, acting medical director of the hospital. Appealing to construction companies to make sure their employees stayed properly hydrated, he said people need to be reminded of just how serious heat exhaustion could be. "We were getting these workers from all over the place so we knew it wasn't just a problem in one site," said Dr Sallam. "That day the temperature was high and the humidity was also very high. It is an emergency situation and a life-threatening condition. Heat exhaustion can cause death or permanent disability if left untreated."
Staff at Al Mafraq, which serves many nearby construction sites, contacted other government hospitals in Abu Dhabi to alert them to the situation, as well as Seha, the company responsible for all government hospitals in the emirate. Dr Sallam urged employers to keep a close eye on their workers and look for signs of dehydration before matters deteriorated to the point where sufferers needed emergency treatment.
Ibrahim Abdullah Hospital in Ras al Khaimah also reported a spike in cases of heat exhaustion. The hospital had 22 cases in one day this week and has treated 120 people since the start of July. A hospital official said those numbers were higher than expected for this time of year, prompting concern for what might come next week. "August is known to be extremely hot," he said. "We want to appeal to residents to stay away from the midday sunshine."
Not all the blame for heat exhaustion can be placed on employers. In July and August employers are obliged by law to allow labourers a 2½-hour break in the middle of the day. Instead of resting in the shade, however, many of the men use the time to make a little extra money by searching through dustbins for anything they might be able to sell. In Sharjah, Noor Habib Khan spends his break picking through dustbins for paper, explaining that he can earn Dh20 to Dh30 a day by selling it to recycling plants.
"I take like two litres of water every midday break time I work," he said, "but have to be sure I am close to municipality public water because I cannot afford the bottled water." Another worker, who gave his name as Uthaman, said he could not afford to take a break. "Midday is for the rich, not people like me," he said. "A person who has dustbins as his source of income cannot rest." firstname.lastname@example.org