The annual midday break law has saved countless outdoor workers from heat stroke and other dangers. But improvements, including de-linking the law to the calendar, are urgently needed.
Link midday break rule to temperature
The weather, you will have noticed, is warming up.
For most people, the familiar seasonal increases in temperature and humidity are little more than an inconvenience or an annoyance - or perhaps a convincing reason to go on holiday to someplace with a more comfortable climate.
For thousands of outdoor labourers, however, summer weather brings only long days of discomfort, not to say misery, and even danger. Heavy work in protective clothing under these conditions, in construction or any other kind of labour, can lead successively to heat cramps, dehydration, heat exhaustion and even heat stroke.
That's why the Ministry of Labour requires employers to give workers a break between 12.30pm and 3pm, and to provide a shaded rest area and water. There can be no doubt that the rule, instituted in 2005, has value: where numbers are available, they show a year-by-year decline in the number of heat-related hospital admissions, as enforcement of the midday break law has become more rigorous.
Since 2010, the break, formerly imposed from mid-July to mid-September, was extended to three months; this year's took effect on Friday.
Unfortunately, some unscrupulous employers still ignore the rule when they can. The solution to that problem lies in better enforcement, and a growing number of inspectors gives promise of exactly that. And fines, increased for this year, now start at Dh15,000 for a first offence.
There is however still work to be done. Some exemptions from the law should be rethought. While emergency work by its nature often waits for no man, tasks such as pouring concrete and spreading asphalt do not have to be timed for the hottest parts of the day.
Another much-needed reform, as we noted last month, involves the calendar. For more than a year officials have been working on a sensible system by which the break rule would be imposed not depending on the date, as at present, but rather on the temperature and humidity and wind speed each day. These factors are to be calculated daily and combined to give a "thermal work limit" - and on any day the limit is exceeded, no matter what the date, the break would be required.
This will have some costs for employers, no doubt, but nonetheless it should be introduced without further delay. The health of so many workers is too important to be left to the arbitrary mercy of the calendar.