Another summer of deadly heatwaves shows why Europe badly needs a law on maximum working temperatures to protect workers from the effects of climate change.
Trade unions are urging the European Commission to take action after two workers collapsed and died after suffering heat stroke in Spain last week. In France, which does not have a maximum working temperature, 12 people died from heat-related work accidents in France in 2020.
Similar tragedies will become more common without legalisation on safe working temperatures.
Ordinarily people work best at a temperature between 16°C and 24°C, according to the WHO. When temperatures rise above 30°C, the risk of workplace accidents increases by 5-7% and, when temperatures exceed 38°C, accidents are between 10% to 15% more likely, research shows.
Dizziness, headaches and muscle cramps are early symptoms of heat stress, which can lead to vomiting, loss of consciousness and ultimately fatalities unless action is taken.
Across the EU, 23% of all workers are exposed to high temperatures at least a quarter of the time, rising to 36% in agriculture and industry, and 38% in construction, according to Eurofound.
But a survey of ETUC affiliates found only a few European countries have legislation to keep workers safe during heatwaves, with a wide variation in limits ranging from 28 to 36 degrees:
Belgium: 29°C for light physical workload, 26°C for a moderately heavy physical workload, 22°C at heavy physical workload and 18°C at very heavy physical workload
Hungary: 31°C for sedentary and light physical work, 29°C for moderately physical work and 27°C for heavy physical work
Latvia: Maximum working temperature for indoor work of 28°C
Montenegro: Maximum working temperature for outdoor work of 36°C
Slovenia: The air temperature in work areas must not exceed 28 °C
Spain: Maximum working temperatures for sedentary work, such as office work is 27°C, while for light work it is 25°C. These limits, however, do not apply to all types of work, nor to all workers and nor to all premises.
Amid the growing climate crisis, the ETUC is calling on the European Commission to close the gaps in protection of workers with a directive on maximum working temperatures.
The EU and national governments also need to enforce existing rules by reversing the huge cuts to the number of labour inspectors over the last decade.
Advice is not sufficient as evidence from the US shows precarious workers are most vulnerable to heat, with over 70% of all heat-related fatalities occurring during the first week on the job.
ETUC Deputy General Secretary Claes-Mikael Ståhl said:
“Heatwaves can be fatal for people working unprotected from the sun, as we’ve already witnessed in Spain this summer.
“Workers are on the frontline of the climate crisis every day and they need protections to match the ever-increasing danger from extreme temperatures.
“The weather doesn’t respect national borders which is why we need Europe-wide legislation on maximum working temperatures.
“Politicians can’t continue to ignore the danger to our most vulnerable workers from the comfort of their airconditioned offices.”