As the impact of climate change continues to affect businesses in a variety of ways, companies must act now to support staff in severe heat, says Matthew Gitsham of Hult International Business School
July 2023 was the warmest month ever recorded, and temperatures are continuing to rise to dangerous levels, with parts of southern Europe currently reaching 48°C. For individuals working in this severe heat, there can be deadly consequences.
This extreme hot weather increases the incidence of wildfires and other drastic weather events, such as the drought, extreme rainfall, tropical storms and hurricanes that we’re seeing across the globe.
These major weather events present significant challenges for workers, impacting their lives in all sorts of ways – many of which render work impossible, or at the very least lead to a significant dip in productivity.
Just by working in consistently high temperatures, employees are likely to experience increased fatigue, lack of concentration and poor decision making. More extreme dangers of prologued exposure to heat include heat exhaustion, heat stroke and other heat stress related illnesses.
A danger to health
From Greece, Spain and Portugal, to Canada and Hawaii, rapid and destructive wildfires have forced tens of thousands of people to leave their homes and have devastated schools and businesses. While these fires are perceived as relatively rare, tragic occurrences, the frequency of these types of weather-related events is increasing and we can unfortunately expect to see a lot more of them in the near future.
Global temperatures are likely to surge to record levels in the next five years, warns a recent report by the World Meteorological Organisation. This, the study explains, will be fuelled by heat-trapping greenhouse gasses and a naturally occurring El Niño event, which warms the surface areas in the eastern Pacific Ocean. This combination will make the next half-decade the warmest on record and will likely increase the incidence of extreme weather events.
Such events present significant health risks for workers, as well as impacting their lives in all sorts of ways – many of which render work impossible, or at the very least lead to a significant dip in productivity.
By working at consistently high temperatures, employees are likely to experience increased fatigue, lack of concentration and poor decision making. More extreme dangers of prologued exposure to heat include heat exhaustion, heat stroke and other heat stress related illnesses.
Adapting working conditions
Companies therefore need to start thinking about adapting working conditions for employees. This is for several key reasons:
- Companies have a moral responsibility to protect employee health and safety;
- Companies have to comply with the existing regulatory requirements to protect the health and safety of their employees, with more likely to come;
- It’s in the company’s commercial interest to address the challenge of reduced worker productivity.
Here are just a few ways that employers can change their working conditions to make work manageable in extreme weather conditions, either now or in the future:
Additional cooling and ventilation
The expectation of increased extreme heat requires companies to invest in additional cooling and ventilation in their workplaces, and to offer this to colleagues working from home. Employers may also need to provide additional breaks, additional refreshments, and perhaps even a modified dress code, to make workplaces fit to work. Employers should also consider implementing flexible working patterns to avoid times of day with the highest heat, and permitting additional breaks to allow workers to cool down.
Monitor work conditions
To ensure that working conditions are safe for employees, companies should invest in technology to monitor heat conditions and air quality in the workplace. This is to ensure that employers are providing a reasonable temperature in work areas. There also needs to be an investment in training so companies can be certain that employees know how to care for their own health in these conditions.
Risk management and support for employees
Companies must implement safety procedures and plans for supporting and protecting employees in the event of extreme weather events, such as flooding in the workplace. Employers must assess these potential situations based on the company-specific circumstances, and create a strategy to minimise the risk in an emergency. This includes optimising evacuation routes for employees, ensuring employees have sufficient time to reach safety in the event of an emergency, and storing any toxic or harmful substances above the anticipated hazard level.
As these extreme weather events become more frequent, companies will need to offer support to workers whose personal lives may have been affected by situations triggered by extreme weather. Extreme weather events may lead to damage to employees’ homes, increased caring responsibilities for family members and friends affected by health impacts.
Employers must consider their workplace policies for these scenarios and make work hours flexible enough to account for the time off work that employees will need in these situations. Companies should ensure that sufficient mental health support services are available to employees, particularly during and after an extreme weather event.
Employers may look at introducing Mental Health First Aid Training (MHFA) in the workplace; providing a work benefit that gives employees access to professional mental health support services; or allowing flexibility and offering support with an employee’s workload when required.
The future of the workplace
Alongside these steps to adapt working conditions, all companies need to be investing in the task of decarbonising their business and their value chain to minimise their environmental impact. Despite this, no matter how good our efforts are at decarbonising, we are going to be experiencing more extreme weather events. The challenges that employees face are only going to increase, and therefore pressure on companies from multiple sources to adapt and change working conditions will also increase.
Employers need to think ahead and be proactive. If they are not, there will be increased risk of workplace strife, reduced employee engagement and motivation, and a higher chance of industrial relations conflicts.
About the Author
Matthew Gitsham is Professor of Sustainable Development and Director of the Ashridge Centre for Business and Sustainability at Hult Ashridge Executive Education, part of Hult International Business School. He serves as Director of the Hult Impact Research Sustainability Lab, and has advised several organisations including the UN Global Compact, Unilever, and IBM amongst others.