A sweltering heat wave has hit Italy this week and likely caused the death of a road worker, a tragedy that was avoidable (link in Italian) according to a trade union representative, should appropriate precautions have been taken.
The 44-year-old worker was drawing road signs in the northern city of Lodi, when he reportedly collapsed around midday on July 11, with temperatures reaching 104°F (40°C). He was transported to a nearby hospital, where he was declared dead.
“A tragedy as absurd as it was avoidable,” Elena Maga, a local labor leader from CISL, one of the major trade unions in Italy, told The Post Internazionale. “Under the sun, this season, work on asphalt and concrete should be questioned and managed absolutely differently. We shouldn’t have to wait for people to die to change things,” she continued, suggesting work schedules be adjusted to night time to avoid heat exposure.
Italy’s heat wave, which has been dubbed “Cerberus” after the three-headed dog guarding hell’s gates in Greek mythology, is projected to reach upwards of 119.8°F (48.8°C), according to a BBC report. A total of 10 cities, including Bologna, Rome, and Florence have issued level 3 heat alerts (link in Italian) as of July 13.
According to a study released earlier this week, Italy suffered the highest number of heat-related deaths in Europe during the heat wave last summer, when extreme temperatures led to an estimated 18,010 deaths in the country, and 61,672 across the continent. A majority of those deaths were recorded among those aged 65 and older.
Laboring in extreme heat is a health hazard. High temperatures increase the risk of asthma flare-ups, heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular conditions. Outdoor workers are particularly vulnerable to heat-related illness.
Policies protecting workers laboring under extreme heat are still in their nascency across the EU. The bloc has published guidance for employers to protect both outdoor and indoor workers under extreme heat, and some countries, like Spain, have set a maximum indoor temperature for workplaces. Despite rising temperatures, these kinds of policies are more of an exception than the rule, both in the EU and across the world.
In reality, an increasing number of workers are having to choose between laboring in extreme conditions to make ends meet, or taking a pay cut to keep themselves safe. The choice is especially acute for those who work outdoors and are paid on an hourly or productivity basis.
Heat interferes with the ability to work. The effective working time of outdoor workers in sectors like construction and agriculture drops 15% when temperatures exceed 86°F (30°C), the EU-funded HEAT-SHIELD project has found.
On a broader economic scale, extreme heat has already cost cities billions of dollars due to drops in worker productivity, according to an Atlantic Council study published last year. The report found that $44 billion on average across 12 cities in 2020, with the number projected to increase to $84 billion by 2050 should temperature rises continue unchecked.
The solution to drops in economic activity, however, is not to strip workers of protections or push them to work in life-threatening conditions. Enacting policies that are adapted to the reality of heat waves, like shifting working hours from hotter to cooler times, could protect both worker safety and mitigate the impact of heat on productivity.
Providing shade, air conditioning, breaks, hydration, and working during cooler hours are all solutions to maintaining worker safety while under hotter conditions. But some policymakers have sought to prioritize productivity at greater risk to workers’ health and safety.
Texas passed a law in June that eliminates mandatory water breaks and rests in the shade for construction workers in Austin and Dallas, and restricts the power of Texan cities to mandate their own rules on this and a range of other matters. Governor Greg Abbott signed the policy, ironically, in the midst of a three-week stretch of over 100°F temperatures (over 37.7°C) in the state. Houston has sued the state of Texas over the bill, which is due to come into force on Sept. 1.