Exposure to high heat and humidity in the workplace is a critical health and safety issue, and in Australia, where heat waves are occurring with more frequency and intensity as a result of climate change, the risks posed by occupational heat exposure have been acknowledged by employer groups, trade unions, and statutory government agencies. Research on these impacts for Australian workers, especially the socio-political determinants of effective workplace heat management, remains limited. High heat is a growing problem for industry as well, and the International Labour Organisation says the impact of climate change on labour productivity will get significantly worse in the next few decades.
Over the last few years our team at the University of Technology Sydney based in the Climate Society and Environment Research Centre (C-SERC) has been examining the impacts of climate change on workers, by investigating their health and safety experiences on the job. Much of our work has examined the impacts of high heat, although we have spoken to workers about bushfires as well. The people we have spoken to have been working as firefighters, food delivery cyclists, parks and recreation staff, cleaners, water and electricity technicians, home care workers, early childhood educators, production line attendants and many more.
Mode of employment and high heat
In our latest paper published in Safety Science, ‘Working in heat: Contrasting heat management approaches among outdoor employees and contractors’, we examine the experience of workplace heat exposure for two groups of affected outdoor workers: contracted pieceworkers in bicycle delivery and permanently employed municipal workers in parks and road maintenance. We conducted surveys and in-person interviews over several weeks at the height of the Sydney summer, and our findings reflect the well-established nexus between outside temperature, humidity and work effort in producing heat stress.
The comparative findings reveal that more secure forms of employment enable social organisation and workflow to manage heat stress and that, conversely, more contingent forms of employment such as contractual piece work can exacerbate exposure. We found that the mode of employment — whether someone is a permanent employee or whether they are being paid by delivery as a sub-contractor — has a direct bearing on the capacity to address workplace heat stress. Given the growth in contract or ‘gig’ work, this may exacerbate the impacts of heat stress and illness climate change advances.
Inability to act to mitigate high heat
In an article published last year in Economic and Labour Relations Review we presented findings from a separate national project that investigated the impacts of climate change on workers in collaboration with the United Workers Union. The article reports on the experiences of their largely blue collar members exposed to high heat, how they address heat stress and if and how they relate this to climate change. The article considers the impacts of workplace heat, especially for indoor workers and those in lower paid jobs, through a focus on how workers articulate their experiences and understand and exercise their agency at work.
Many workers we spoke with work in environments where they are exposed to the weather, or do not have access to proper ventilation or cooling controls. The article, ‘“Zonked the hell out”: Climate change and heat stress at work’, details our finding that many workers were having to work at rates of production which were incompatible with some of the most basic heat management strategies which humans typically use to cool themselves, such as slowing down, having rests and taking breaks to rehydrate. Despite the wide range of jobs and locations respondents were based in, and the high levels of access to cooling in some industries, most workers (90.7%) were affected by heat on hot days. A majority said heat affected them ‘very much’ or ‘quite a bit’ on hot days (58%), with less than 10% of workers reporting they were never or rarely affected. High heat, and the inability to take action to mitigate its impacts caused heat stress and illness, and in extreme situations colleagues or people the workers had in their care dying from the consequences of high heat.
Working in high heat had dissociative impacts for some workers, who described feeling ‘out of it’, ‘like a zombie’, on ‘remote control’ or being ‘zonked the hell out’. One worker compared it to having ‘a really severe hangover’, and another said high heat problems led to ‘mental health deterioration over time’. One manufacturing worker told us, if ‘you go home after a long day, you just kind of want to stare at the ground for ten, fifteen minutes, until you, I don’t know, become alive again’. A utilities worker explained how the impacts can stay around for days: ‘I have come in from some on-calls where I’ve done over 102 hours in a week, dry retching and throwing up, just from all the heat exhaustion and just doing 16-hour shifts, 7 days a week . . . you even feel it after those hot days have gone’. This already difficult situation is becoming tougher as heatwaves increase in intensity, duration and frequency due to climate change.
More broadly in our work we take up the concept of ‘climate precarity’, emphasising how climate conditions make, or are likely to make, all labour more precarious (see also the work of Natarajan, Parsons and colleagues). This has consequences for the broader processes of social reproduction, work-life longevity, job security, and wellbeing. Our approach of climate precarity is cognisant of the differentiated experience of labour in climate adaptation, as a deeply political process shaped by class, gender, race, migration status, and the role and level of autonomy of an individual in the workforce. Changes are however not unidirectional — what workers do, and how labour adapts, in turn alters the political economy in which these climate change impacts are occurring.
Ideas of labour precarity have been in use for many decades to describe those living in a state of material precariousness in relation to work, income and wellbeing. More recently Guy Standing has popularised the idea there is an emerging precarious class, distinct from the traditional working class. Natarajan and colleagues developed their approach to climate precarity in parallel to our own, as a means of ‘drawing on the conceptual insights of precarity as both subjective and objective to better understand the vulnerability that climate change poses from a structural perspective across space’. We are seeking to develop climate precarity in connection to these approaches, but also emphasising how labour exploitation and ‘resource’ appropriation are internally related in processes of climate change. As Pearse and Bryant argue in relation to energy capital, there is a need to ‘think through the internal relations of exploitation and appropriation’ in relation to how the economy is being reorganised in the era of climate change’. In this sense, labour precariousness is not simply defined in terms of worker contingency and insecurity but is also internally related to the naturalised realms of socio-ecological reproduction that support accumulation.