Agriculture exposed to higher heat stress amid record temperatures

As global temperatures have been continuously increasing due to climate change with severe impacts on people’s health, and labor productivity, agriculture sector workers — about 870 million worldwide — are at the forefront, being exposed to higher heat stress risks amid record temperatures.

The world had the hottest week on record last week, according to preliminary data from World Meteorological Organization (WMO), followed by the hottest June on record, “with unprecedented sea surface temperatures and record low Antarctic sea ice extent.”

The average global temperature on 7 July was 17.24 degrees Celsius.
“This is 0.3°C above the previous record of 16.94 °C on 16 August 2016 – a strong El Nino year,” WMO said early this week.

Catherine Saget, head of the Research Unit at the International Labour Organization, told Anadolu that high temperatures impact how people’s bodies function. At 25 degrees, people start slowing down to adapt to the heat.

“At higher levels, heat can have serious detrimental effects on the health of workers and the elderly, pregnant women, and people with pre-conditions. It reduces workers’ productivity either because people cannot work or work at a reduced pace,” she noted.

Saget said that workers working outdoors, such as those in agriculture and construction, are particularly affected, as well as other sectors like waste management, tourism, and sport.

Global employment was 3.2 billion by 2021, and agriculture accounted for 870 million of the total, according to the ILO figures.

Southern Asia has employed 273.4 million in agriculture sectors, while this number is also high in Sub-Saharan Africa with 213.8 million and eastern Asia with 194.6 million by 2021, regions among the most vulnerable to extreme weather events related to climate change.

Agriculture employment in the southern-east Asia and Pacific region is 95.4 million, followed by Latin America and the Caribbean with 40.6 million and North Africa with 15.6 million.

About 14 million people work in the agriculture sector in central and western Asia region, while the number of agriculture workers in Eastern Europe is 11.1 million and 6.4 million in North, South and Central Europe.

The ILO data shows Arabic states and North America have employed 5.2 million and 2.9 million people in the agriculture sector by 2021.

Heat stress can lead to fatigue, exhaustion, reduced concentration, chronic kidney disease, heat stroke and sometimes with a fatal outcome, Saget said. 

– Productivity loss could rise by 57% 

The ILO estimates that 2.2% of productivity will be lost in 2030 globally due to heat stress, 57% up from the estimated productivity loss of 1.4% in 1995.

“In addition, heat stress can add to other risks faced by specific groups of workers. For example, workers in agriculture are at higher risks of heat stress and they also suffer from high exposure to pesticides which can also be detrimental to their health,” she underlined.

She added that businesses also suffer from the reducing productivity, threatening economic development.

The Lancet, a global medical journal, found that heat exposure led to 470 billion potential labor hours lost globally in 2021, with potential income losses equivalent to 0.72% of the global economic output.

The labor losses in 2021 increased by 37% from the annual average in 1990-99 and two-thirds of all labor hours lost across the world were in the agricultural sector. This proportion was highest in low human development index countries, at 87%.

– Governments have “very important role” to play

Saget said that apart from agriculture, workers in the construction sector are also particularly affected by higher temperatures and in most countries, 10 to 15% of workers are in construction.

“Every ten workers or more is working in construction in any country,” she noted, adding that workers indoors can also suffer from high temperatures if there is no air condition or if they work next to machines producing heat like cooks, brickmaking workers.

According to Saget, several actions can be taken by actors of the world of work themselves to reduce the impacts of heat stress on workers.

“Workers can be trained in recognizing the signs of heat stress on themselves and their co-workers. Training to adapt progressively to higher heat levels has also been shown to be efficient and low-cost,” Saget said.

“Employers, who have an obligation to ensure a safe and healthy work environment, must ensure access to water and rest periods. Adapting working hours to avoid the hottest hours is also possible.”

Governments have a very important role to play, she said, noting that providing information on current and expected temperatures, ensuring workers under heat stress have access to free and affordable health care and putting in place a comprehensive policy to prevent heat stress are among the steps that could be taken.

“More careful urban planning to develop cities that are better adapted to high levels of heat can also play an important role in reducing heat stress on workers,” Saget noted.

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