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Extreme Heat Temperatures Create Unsafe Working Conditions in the Caribbean

Climate change exacerbates weather fluctuations, heightening risks for workers exposed to extreme heat.

Extreme heat temperatures in the Caribbean place workers at risk, creating a sense of urgency for the need for risk-reduction strategies. Heat exposure from climate events is a major concern in the Caribbean. Heat stress in particular is quite common, primarily in the dry season, but hotter conditions have also been recorded during the wet season. Each year, climate change reveals unprecedented events and fluctuations in weather patterns. Hotter temperatures and heat waves are continually recorded, and these create risks for those who work outdoors with significant exposure.

Climate change exacerbates weather fluctuations, heightening risks for workers exposed to extreme heat.

A heat hazard recognition outline provided by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has accounted for the intersectional factors that result in heat stress. These include a culmination of environmental conditions (such as sunlight and humidity levels), level of physical activity, accessibility to protective gear, and personal risk factors. These components are meticulously evaluated and measured via a heat index, which determines how they can intersect to produce varying outcomes of heat-related symptoms.

This activity pays critical attention to how heat-related symptoms can arise. Climate and weather patterns have been a driving factor. Caribbean countries continue to be impacted by climate events, and heat exposure is no exception. Many professions require working outdoors, with some being horticultural workers, farmers, construction workers, road maintenance staff, security and police personnel, street vendors, and outdoor salespersons. The risks associated with exposure vary based on accessibility to personal protective equipment (PPE), the availability of rest periods, and limitations on reducing exposure. As such, high temperatures are recurring throughout the Caribbean, and the heightened susceptibility of workers leads to severe effects.

Climate change exacerbates weather fluctuations, heightening risks for workers exposed to extreme heat.

Working in hotter temperatures is no easy feat, as many continue to experience long-term heat-related symptoms. Jacqulyn Charles, a florist in Trinidad and Tobago, has worked outdoors for over 25 years. She explained that her typical schedule starts at 5:30 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. at a designated spot, and then she goes door-to-door until 5:00 p.m. She said that she’s experienced severe sunburns around the face, hands, and lower feet due to constant heat exposure.

The experiences of workers who have to stand for long periods and engage in other strenuous activities can exacerbate heat-related symptoms. This is the experience of Lawrence Willery, an entrepreneur at LCA Services in Georgetown, Guyana. Much of Lawrence’s work entails outdoor services such as landscaping, painting, and pressure washing. His typical schedule does not exceed 4 days per week, yet he has experienced symptoms such as vision loss due to excessive light and foggy safety glasses, extreme sweating, blebs, tiredness, and dehydration.

Climate change exacerbates weather fluctuations, heightening risks for workers exposed to extreme heat.

Although agricultural and trade workers are greatly impacted, other fields are experiencing more exposure than before. This is the case for Natifah Wallace, a retail worker in Trinidad and Tobago. Natifah typically works indoors but was rostered to work outdoors based on the implementation of a station in front of the store. She said, “Heat can increase pollutants and allergens in the atmosphere, which makes my asthma/sinus trigger more easily than normal. The medication I use to control my asthmatic flare-ups (prednisolone) has interfered with my body’s ability to cope/acclimatise with high levels of heat or any thermal environment.”

For Natifah, her duration of exposure was limited in comparison to Jacqulyn’s and Lawrence’s, yet she has also suffered symptoms from the increasing temperatures. Despite the rate of exposure for each worker, they’ve been impacted by effects that have altered their ability to work. These experiences depict the prevalence of heat-related symptoms and illnesses that are exacerbated by climate change and the necessity for measures to reduce exposure.

With record-breaking temperatures, the risks for workers are becoming more apparent. Workers who engage in outdoor roles are facing health effects that require immediate intervention. What is becoming clearer is that, despite the duration, heat exposure must be continually monitored and workers must be provided with the necessary protective equipment to reduce exposure. Climate change has drastically affected heat levels globally. The contribution of greenhouse gases has created a warming effect on the atmosphere and accelerates the occurrence of hotter than usual types of days.

John Johnson, a 56-year-old fisherman in Andros, The Bahamas, has recognised how temperatures are changing. He said, “With the spike in temperature this summer alone, it’s been a lot. Last year was hot, and we adjusted based on that. Some days we would have shorter times on the water. This entire summer has been hot, so we had to adjust a lot. Some weeks we did two weekdays and a weekend, for example, to maintain our quota. On days when it’s really hot, we don’t dive for a conch because the water temperature is too hot.”

Climate change exacerbates weather fluctuations, heightening risks for workers exposed to extreme heat.

Despite the reductions in work schedules, the high temperatures that John was exposed to created several health symptoms. He said, “Personally, it’s been a rise in headaches and dizziness. Some days I used to be out a lot, and that was before I took it as seriously. By the time I got home, my head was swinging, my eyes hurt, I was throwing up, and I was unbalanced. I was told I had something like sun poisoning, and I didn’t even know that was a thing.”

John’s experiences show how rising temperatures are severely impacting not only the land but oceanic spaces as well. As temperatures rise, this leads to ocean warming, which poses risks for marine species, exacerbates sea-level rise, and disrupts the daily schedules of marine workers.

These effects have been vocalised regularly, but what are the potential solutions? For workers who must engage in these environments regularly, how can they be protected from such exposure?

Climate change exacerbates weather fluctuations, heightening risks for workers exposed to extreme heat.

Workers such as Jacqulyn have adopted actions to reduce exposure. She said, “I use a hat because the sun is damaging my skin by discoloration. I use sunblock a lot and wear a long-sleeved jacket over my jersey to cover my hands. My hands have gotten sunburns bad. I also use gloves on my hands because my fingers get sunburns and tall socks and boots for my feet to avoid sunburns by my ankles.” John has also found strategies to reduce risk while at sea. He said, ”I try to limit my sun and heat exposure as much as possible when possible. On our boats, it is mandatory to have sunscreen, water, a hat, a buffer, Gatorade, and ample food supplies.”

Whether it’s on land or at sea, workers are utilising efficient ways to reduce exposure at a personal level. Lawrence recommended that workers wear light-coloured clothing to keep the body cooler and consume room-temperature water. Workers have utilised equipment and facilities to reduce their exposure based on their accessibility, but this must be supplemented with additional risk-reduction strategies by governing and corporate bodies. Natifah recommended shortening exposure time, allowing frequent breaks, and resting. She also recommended the implementation of tarps and umbrellas to provide adequate shade.

A solution-based approach towards heat exposure reduction for workers must be holistic. It requires all personnel to adopt principles that account for the impact of climate change on workers and make decisions that are centred around their safety and well-being. In any environment, workers are impacted by climate change and events that alter the conditions in which they work. It’s through understanding this that inclusive decisions can be made at a local, regional, and international level, as well as through legislative and occupational frameworks.

This story was published by News 5 Belize with the support of the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture between Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.


Picture of Princess Charles

Princess Charles

Princess is a Trinidadian writer and blogger with articles in the fields of human rights, labour laws, and occupational safety and health. She is an advocate for labour rights, mental health, disability rights, and climate justice. With a degree in Occupational Safety and Health, she centres her work on providing safer spaces and risk-reduction strategies for communities and the environment.

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