Schmit tells bosses: Protect workers from extreme heat

The European Commission has today taken its first steps to protect workers from extreme heat following a campaign by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).

At an EU summit on occupational health and safety in Stockholm, EU Commissioner for Social Rights Nicolas Schmit announced new guidance on employers’ responsibility to people working in high temperatures.

The guidelines, drawn up by European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, come after the ETUC put pressure on the Commission to act after workers collapsed and died while working during heatwaves in recent summers – tragedies that will become more common due to climate change without new protections.

The guidelines set out employers’ obligations to workers, including:

  • Carry out a workplace risk assessment and protect vulnerable workers
  • Consult workers and their representatives about how to manage heat risks
  • Adapting working hours and allowing workers to decide when to take breaks
  • Ensuring workers have a supply of drinking water, access to a shaded area and protective clothing
  • Provide training on how to manage heat stress for at-risk workers

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.

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.

ETUC Deputy General Secretary Claes-Mikael Stahl said:

“Every summer in Europe people lose their lives because they are forced to work unprotected in dangerously high temperatures. This needless loss of life has to stop.

“Climate change is making heatwaves more frequent and extreme and we need to ensure that working practices are adapted to take this into account.

“This new EU guidance is a good first step and leaves employers with no doubt about their responsibilities to keep workers safe this summer.

“The Commission must now though turn this guidance into a binding rules on maximum working temperatures which makes protecting workers from this ever-increasing danger a legal obligation.”