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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 15 October 2018

Warning systems could protect workers from summer heat, say health experts

Suggestion comes from study into risks associated with rising temperatures in UAE

Workers take their midday break in the shade, in July 2018. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Workers take their midday break in the shade, in July 2018. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Warning systems to alert outdoor workers to dangerous temperature rises could help to offset the physiological effects of climate change on labourers in the UAE.

That is the recommendation of health experts who advised on a study by the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment that sought to identify health risks associated with rising temperatures.

Scientists say rising temperatures associated with climate change could bring real harm in the Gulf. According to one study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, climate modelling and other data suggest temperatures in the region could hit 60°C by 2100 if urgent action is not taken.

“We are already feeling the effects of climate change in all aspects of our lives,” said Fahed Al Hammadi, of the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment.

“Given the current projections, such effects will continue to grow in intensity and frequency, and adaptation is the only viable response strategy,” Mr Al Hammadi said.

The study revealed that the main physiological impact of climate change on people is heat stress – a condition which can result in heat stroke, exhaustion, cramps or rashes, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said.

Other climate-change related diseases that should be monitored and addressed include those associated with carbon pollution, such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. These diseases can significantly reduce productivity.

In 2004, the UAE made it illegal for people to work from 12.30pm to 3pm while exposed to sunlight. Workers were granted an afternoon break for two months, which in 2010 was extended to three months.

Inspectors carry out frequent and random checks to ensure companies comply with regulations and provide sunshades, water and first aid on site. Companies are fined Dh5,000 per worker if they break the rules.

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The UAE has very clear rules around summer time working,” said James Lewry, a director of Control Risks, who leads the worker welfare risk management team in the Middle East, from Dubai.

“But the issue is that companies with at-risk workers vary in terms of their implementation of heat stress measures.”

Companies often offer solutions, such as electrolyte-laden drinks to help workers rehydrate themselves, but they do not always explain why they are being used, Mr Lewry said.

“Education is really important for getting people to use those control measures,” he said.

Compliance to summer time working restrictions was good among companies this year, said Mr Lewry. And some have introduced technologies such as cooling towels to help outdoor workers cope with the heat outside the restriction period.

The ministry’s study, however, revealed that there was “a lot more” room for further initiatives. Health experts suggested that enhanced early warning systems and heat alert plans would be useful. However, the recommendations did not specify how the system would be implemented.

In June, The National spoke to workers who appealed for additional drinking water units on construction sites, more shaded rest areas and an extension of the midday break hours.

Many said temperatures had begun climbing earlier in the year and a one or two-hour extension would make working conditions easier during the intense afternoon heat.

“Having supervisors who are trained to spot heat stress symptoms means they can get people out of the situation and protect them,” he said.

“Often the people who suffer from heat stress don’t necessarily know that they are going through it at the time.”