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Managing Heat Stress: Occupational Health Challenges in a Warming World

Today, Africa is the world’s most climate-vulnerable region, despite contributing the least to historic carbon emissions. While this is where the contrast is starkest, developing nations the world over are hard-hit as the climate crisis takes its undeniable effect, meaning that regions already affected by other forms of crisis are hardest hit. This makes for growing gaps in inequality, and an increasingly urgent need to address how those living and working in climate-affected areas are protected from the harsh effects of the climate crisis.

It’s essential for companies and organisations to consider both the big picture in fighting climate change and their day-to-day responsibilities towards employees in a warming world. In environments that are disproportionately affected by rising temperatures, special care is needed by employers to implement measures that protect teams in these areas of higher security risk. Managing heat stress is possible, and taking a kinder approach is good for business beyond just complying with health and safety regulations: it’s unsurprising that heat-induced illnesses have a negative effect on productivity, but perhaps less commonly discussed that worker comfort is good for productivity.

The effects of rising temperatures on occupational health

Temperatures continue to rise around the globe – Delhi recently recorded its highest ever recorded temperature of 52.9°C – and with the rising mercury the effects of the heat on individuals increase. Some of the effects of a very hot work environment are relatively easy to predict – heat stroke and heat exhaustion are well-documented effects of overheating whether at work or play – while others, like heat rash and heat cramps, might be a little more difficult to recognise as being connected to the temperature. There are also secondary dangers to consider: dizziness or sweaty palms could lead to an increased risk of accidents while working with heavy equipment. For humanitarians and others working in the medical sector, PPE is often required for their roles, further compounding this risk.


Populations contributing the least to carbon emissions are frequently the hardest hit.

Managing heat stress: practical tips for high-risk environments

Preventing heat stress starts with the most obvious, and therefore perhaps most overlooked, measures: keeping workers cooler is the first step to managing heat stress. One way to do this is to cool the work environment where possible, but where this is not an option, appropriately planned hours out of the midday sun, scheduled rest and work cycles, become vital.

It’s essential that workers receive training before deployment to their new working environment so that they can proactively monitor and care for their own health and that of those around them. For workers from cooler environments, symptoms of heat stress may feel like an insignificant addition to the discomfort that they feel in their new environment, when in fact it’s real cause for alarm, while workers from a similarly warm region may be tempted to tough it out rather than taking the necessary precautions – sometimes as simple as wearing a hat and seeking shade to avoid sunburn – to mitigate the danger. Arming workers with the ability to recognise abnormal symptoms will prove invaluable, and for the particularly stubborn, the implementation of regular temperature checks takes the emotion out of recognising risks.

As workers arrive in a new region, acclimatisation is essential: to reduce heat stress, new members of a team should begin their tasks in warmer environments very gradually, following expert recommendations on appropriate stretches of time spent at work. Hydration is yet another seemingly obvious factor that shouldn’t be overlooked: water should be readily available, at a cool enough temperature, to keep workers hydrated, and the dehydrating effects of caffeine and alcohol consumption can be highlighted during the training and education process.

Wearing PPE and other protective equipment at work compounds heat stress and requires extra precautions for workers.

Recognising and responding to heat-induced illness

Where the individual is already severely affected, professional medical help should be sought immediately, and getting the patient to a medical facility may be necessary. In addition to serving as the first point of contact in case of heat stress and being on hand to provide medical advice, Assist360 can provide evacuation to a location at which the appropriate treatment can be obtained for heat-related injury and illness.

Employers should ensure that all supervisors are trained not only in implementing the day-to-day measures that prevent heat stress but also in recognising the warning signs that something is wrong: confusion, headaches, a rapid pulse and rashes are just as likely to indicate overheating as the better-known effects like dizziness and nausea. By being able to recognise symptoms of heatstroke and other lesser-known health effects, these individuals play a vital role in implementing recovery measures and getting the necessary help in a life-threatening situation of heat stress.

Management of heat stress risk starts long before an employee relocates to a high-risk region, and should continue throughout their time in the environment. Workers should be empowered by employers to monitor and care for their own health as they go about their daily tasks, but ultimately, the responsibility for wellbeing in the workplace falls on the employer – and that means having a plan in place to avoid, recognise and treat heat stress.

For employers with workers deployed to parts of the world where heat stress is a significant risk, Assist360 can be trusted as a partner in preventing and treating the effects of heat, even in the most complex environments – equipped with expertise and resources that enable employees and managers alike to keep their cool.

Don’t know where to start in setting up medical support for your team? See how Assist360 can help in any location.

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