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Where the Sun never makes it hotter than 45 degrees

The full heat of summer is with us again...

It is that time of the year again. The outside has begun to get uncomfortable, even for a few minutes at a time. Office workers need to steel themselves to step out from the comfortable confines of their air-conditioned offices, even if it is just a short distance away to their car.

And, of course, the car is no better. It is like getting into an oven, and it takes what seems a very long time to get to anywhere near bearable; in fact you have often reached your destination by the time the car gets cool enough for you to actually enjoy driving.

If that is the level of discomfort the office workers feel and find annoying, imagine what the tough hard hats are going through right outside your air conditioned office. Construction workers are indeed made of much sterner stuff, or so it seems. They can take much more than their soft counterparts in offices. Whether born to the outdoors or not, they seem to able to work for long hours with or without shade. They easily suffer what is insufferable for others. But do they have to? Should they have to?

There are some jobs that just have to be done. Ask any hero of any disaster movie. But the construction workers that you may see clinging atop sometimes perilous looking scaffolding on high rises, or burrowing away in the craters of vast excavations at huge waterfront projects, are not made of the stuff movies are made of. In fact they are just as vulnerable to the sun as any other worker.

It is true that, unlike schools, construction projects once started cannot be stopped for annual vacations – or for that matter for any holiday. Project delays are very costly and often lead to disputes, making the cost of delay even higher. Construction projects have to be completed in a given time and to the full satisfaction of the client and as stated in the contract. Sun or no sun, heat or no heat, the project must go on. This is a given.

But can anything be done to alleviate the suffering of the workers that have to toil in the heat and the humidity? As in every sector, there are good employers and there are bad employers in the construction industry. You can always tell by observing which company’s workers are dressed well, are protected at sites with full safety equipment, have proper transport and accommodation, and are paid on time.

These are the companies that provide plenty of water and shade, frequent breaks and try to do non-stop work like concreting, late at night. There are many more that do not.
The Labour Law No. 8 of 1980 from the Ministry of Labour & Social Affairs does define occupational safety and health and describes a number of steps that need to be taken to ensure the good health and safety of workers at the workplace. But it does not go far enough.

Internationally, there is a ‘Heat Index” that combines the measures of heat and humidity to arrive at a level, beyond which ethical companies stop work at open sites. This index varies from country to country but means that absolute temperature is not all that is taken into account. An equivalent temperature is calculated according to humidity to give a index. Beyond a certain critical number, work is stopped. With a predicted temperature today of 420C, which equates to 108oF, the heat index (measured in Fahrenheit on the charts I obtained on the internet) with a relative humidity of 57%, comes to a heat index of 130oF (that’s 54oC!). At these temperatures, heat stroke is highly likely, and outdoor work should be stopped or measures taken.

There are no laws in the UAE to protect workers based on a heat index or anything else: it is left to companies to make the decision. Not many stop work. There should be official guidelines on the issue. It is perhaps something that the contractors association could take up, with both its members and government. Some sort of obligatory heat index should be worked out in consultation with health and safety authorities, and companies should be made to adhere to these guidelines. And, since the UAE is very much a leader in the Gulf, it is hoped that other GCC countries will follow suit.

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