Impacts of Heat Exposure on Productivity Outcomes

Driving economic success is labour productivity, with economists focusing large amounts of attention on understanding, measuring, and enhancing productivity where possible. Any change in labour output has a direct impact on the economy, with both micro and macro implications. There is substantial growing evidence that the productivity of workers is being negatively impacted, particularly those in higher temperature climates – where temperatures are still climbing and reaching record numbers. The IPCC fifth assessment report stated,

“Global mean temperatures by 2100 are likely to be at least 1.5°C higher than during 1850–1900 and under some scenarios more than 5°C higher, with varying increases for individual regions and a higher incidence of temperature spikes in most places.”

This could potentially have a huge impact on the productivity of frontline workers unless technology adaptations can significantly improve early warning response and recovery time.

Heat and Physiological Impairments

High humidity conditions inhibit the ability for sweat to evaporate ultimately impeding the body’s ability to cool as normal. Without regulated heat dissipation, high core and body temperature can impede performance and increases the risk of heat-related illnesses. Oppermann et al. has stated that “Sensing and regulating body temperature is a core capability for human survival. To minimize physiological impairments and fatality related to heat, the resting body temperature of 37°C must be maintained within ±3.5°C. A key defence mechanism in human physiology is the evaporation of sweat, which is an effective way of reducing body heat via cooling of the skin, but this mechanism is strongly influenced by air humidity.” The index for heat management broadly used across many industries is;

Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT), combining temperature, humidity, air movement (wind speed) and heat radiation (outdoors, mostly from the sun) into a single numerical value that can be interpreted from a safety viewpoint considering the intensity of the work and the persons clothing.

The impacts on physical and mental wellbeing for workers exposed to these extreme conditions can be widespread. Across the Northern Territory, Western Australia and North Queensland, extensive exposure has seen results of chronic (79%) and severe (47%) heat stress symptoms which can also have knock-on effects on mental health and wellbeing. Recent studies are now suggesting strong evidence of heat exposure increases the rate of occupational accidents – which ties together heat strain, cognitive and physical performance.

Protecting Heat Exposed Workers

Early adoption of wearable sensors could transform the construction, mining and agriculture industries with Dr Runkle (Environmental Epidemiologist at the North Carolina Institute for Climate Studies) stating - boosting productivity and reducing injury "while ensuring the health and safety of an ageing workforce and eliminating the risk of heat strain". A huge issue many researchers are finding is the gap between the perception of heat risk and actual heat risk. A wider take up of wearable heat sensors by employees and employers would help breach the gap between heat awareness and heat-related incidents. There are some easier solutions to heat stress although would require a serious shift in roster and behaviour changes. Optimising work hours to ensure workers are not exposed to the high extreme may be beneficial, although this does not find the answer to those working in extreme conditions that are not climate-based.

Heat-related illnesses are largely preventable, with the right amount of heat awareness and knowledge being integral to prevent worst-case scenarios. In the workplace, effective management of heat stress requires cooperation and effort from stakeholders, whilst the technology on the front line is continually improving early warning detection.

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