x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Practical reform of summer work break

An improved system to protect outdoor workers from the heat has been in development for more than a year - but it's still not in use.

During the first half of May, Abu Dhabi recorded an average maximum temperature of 42°C, the highest figure on record for the period.

On construction projects and other outdoor worksites across the capital, however, workers laboured on through the day. Existing law calls for a three-hour midday break in hot weather, but there's a catch: the rest is required starting on June 15.

Even the best-intentioned laws can fall out of step with the realities of life - and weather. And sometimes the process of updating legislation and regulation can be painfully slow.

Whether you blame this year's early heat snap on climate change or on natural fluctuations, the effect on labourers is the same. Doctors know the sequence: heat cramps, dehydration, heat exhaustion and even heat stroke can result from too much exposure, especially when combined with exertion. In 2010, for example, the UAE recorded 817 heat-exhaustion cases. Already this year, officials say, there have been some hospital admissions linked to the heat.

One full year ago, the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi (HAAD) said it was, in cooperation with the Ministry of Labour and the Environment Health and Safety Centre, developing a more practical new system. Never mind the calendar date: on any day when a new "thermal work limit" (TWL) is reached, the three-hour midday break will be required.

The TWL is to be calculated each day, according to a formula involving temperature, humidity and wind speed. (To be sure, full summer humidity has not yet made itself felt this month.)

This sensible reform has, unfortunately, still not come into effect. In February, regulations about the TWL were adopted, but unfortunately we are still in a training period, and the improvement is not expected to be fully implemented this year.

Undeniably, regulation can be complicated, and a requirement such as this needs to be fully explained to employers, and also must be fully enforceable with trained inspectors ready, or it will do no good at all. It is also true that this system will drive up labour costs for employers.

But workers need protection. You don't need to be a builder at a worksite to regret the fact that the capital has so far been unable to put together the pieces of a reform that is both sensible and necessary.