How could new technology protect outdoor workers?
Outdoor workers consistently work enduring harsh elements. Not only can this reduce the workers ability to complete the job but also can be detrimental to their health and safety.
Extreme temperatures are one of the main causes for endangering the safety outdoor workers. In many countries, they’ve already made adaptations due to regular hot temperatures. People start their day before sunrise to avoid working in the midday heat. In warm countries like Spain and Greece, there’s already a culture of resting during the hottest part of the day. India’s National Disaster Management Authority has also advised avoiding strenuous work between 12.00 pm and 15.00pm.
Heat can kill. It lowers a worker’s ability to concentrate and leads to notable increases in workplace injuries, research suggests.
Poor sleep makes heat-related illness more likely; and high temperatures can also make it challenging to sleep. For workers operating heavy machinery, this can be a lethal combination.
But rising temperatures, linked to human-caused climate change, damage economies even beyond the immediate health impacts. Above a threshold of 20-25°C, each additional degree is associated with around a 2% drop in task productivity.
By 2030, the global cost of lower labour productivity due to heat is estimated to reach £1.8 trillion per year: West Africa will be especially hard hit.
Yet, for reasons including financial need, workplace pressure, and a lack of awareness of the health impacts of high temperatures, many people continue to work past their heat tolerance. In many countries, occupational heat health is a matter of guidance, rather than requirements to safeguard workers.
Individualised, wearable sensors could be a useful tool for determining likely heat strain. Dr Runkle believes that this technology would be especially useful in industries like construction, mining and agriculture.
Early adoption of these devices would be a win-win, according to Dr Runkle: boosting productivity and reducing injury “while ensuring the health and safety of an ageing workforce and eliminating the risk of heat strain”.
Wider take-up of wearable heat sensors by employees, employers and healthcare providers would also help overcome gaps in heat awareness.
“One important finding we discovered in our research with outdoor workers is that there was a mismatch between workers’ perception of heat risk and their actual exposure to extreme heat captured by wearables,” said Dr Runkle.
Another aid could be wearable cooling technology, but such devices are mainly in the research and development phase, or limited in availability. One such device is Sony’s Reon Pocket 2, which it launched in April. A wearable cooling or warming device worn inside clothing, it uses electrical conductors that transfer heat when electricity is run through them.
While the company is eventually planning to launch the product overseas, it’s currently only available in Japan.
The first Reon Pocket model sold 10,000 units within two days of its launch. While the new model has a special mode for keeping golf players cool, it’s apparently also being used by some outdoor workers.
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