Orange News: Hong Kong is no stranger to scorching temperatures and sweltering summers. As global temperatures continue to rise due to climate change, this poses increasing risks to the overall health and safety of outdoor workers. Recognising this pressing concern, Hong Kong has taken a significant step forward by introducing the Heat Stress System, a three-tier warning system, to protect outdoor workers from heat-related illnesses and ensure their well-being.
Greenpeace’s survey conducted among workers revealed alarming insights. Nearly 90% of workers agreed that the weather in Hong Kong has become hotter over the past 10 years, whilst more than 66% believed that the increasing heat has had a significant impact on their work. Shockingly, over 52% of workers reported that they have experienced symptoms of heat-related illnesses in the past two months, including dizziness, difficulty breathing, headaches, and physical exhaustion. These figures paint a concerning picture of the risks faced by workers in Hong Kong’s scorching temperatures.
The Heat Stress System considers multiple factors, including temperature, humidity, and sunlight intensity, to provide tailored recommendations for workers based on their labour intensity.
In the context of Hong Kong’s hot and humid summers, the Heat Stress System’s reliance on the Hong Kong heat index ensures its applicability and effectiveness. The index is specifically calibrated to account for the unique climatic conditions of the region, including the high humidity levels that exacerbate the impact of heat stress.
The Hong Kong heat index is calculated from the natural wet bulb temperature, the global temperature, and the dry bulb temperature together with a set of coefficients. The result, the index makes the Heat Stress System applicable to the high humidity condition in the summer of Hong Kong.
The urgency of implementing the Heat Stress System is underscored by data from climate science. Hong Kong has witnessed an increasing number of record-breaking temperatures in the past decade, highlighting the need for proactive measures. In fact, last year, Hong Kong experienced 44 hot weather days, and labour unions reported five suspected cases of heat-related deaths.
According to projections by the Hong Kong Observatory, if carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise, Hong Kong could face an average of 112 hot weather days per year by the end of the century. This alarming statistic highlights the importance of adapting and safeguarding workers from the adverse effects of heatwaves driven by climate change.
While the system is a significant step forward, several challenges need to be addressed for its effective implementation. The voluntary nature of the system raises concerns about enforcement. The existing legislation, the Occupational Safety and Health Ordinance, lacks specific safety standards for preventing heat-related illnesses, resulting in inadequate preventive measures by employers. For example, over 64% of workers stated that their employers did not provide wide-brimmed sun hats, and 90% of workers mentioned lacking portable fans as they worked. To overcome these challenges, it will be crucial to continue pursuing ongoing dialogue and cooperation from various stakeholders to build a consensus toward legally binding guidelines.
The successful implementation and improvement of the system requires collaboration between the government, employers, unions, and workers. It is imperative to establish open dialogue and encourage feedback from stakeholders to address concerns and enhance the effectiveness of the guidelines. According to a survey conducted by Greenpeace, there is a strong consensus among workers for the government to introduce more legally binding guidelines (79.3%) and include heat-related illnesses, such as heatstroke, as compensable occupational diseases (93.3%). Such collaboration will ensure that workers’ safety remains a top priority.
In parallel with the implementation of the system, public awareness campaigns are vital to educate workers about the system and their rights. Employers play a critical role in communicating and educating their workers about the guidelines and the importance of heat safety. By raising awareness and fostering a culture of heat safety, we can collectively protect workers and reduce the incidence of heat-related illnesses.
Continuous monitoring and evaluation of the system is paramount to ensuring the ongoing effectiveness of the system. Data collection and analysis plays a crucial role in identifying trends, areas for improvement, and updating the guidelines as needed. Regular monitoring of weather conditions, workers’ health records, and compliance with the guidelines will provide valuable insights into the system’s impact and allow for the upcoming reviewing window.
The government must address the concerns raised by the community regarding the well-being of vulnerable workers and operational sustainability, particularly those in sectors with limited resources. Cleaners and workers in low-income industries often face challenges in taking breaks and finding suitable rest areas during extreme heat conditions. The government must support employers to provide adequate rest facilities, shaded areas, and support to ensure the well-being of these workers. Collaborative efforts between employers, unions, and government agencies can help establish guidelines and provisions specifically tailored to protect the rights and health of vulnerable workers.
While voluntary measures are a step in the right direction, strong enforcement mechanisms are needed to ensure compliance with the guidelines. Employers must recognise their responsibility to prioritise workers’ safety and take appropriate actions to prevent heat-related illnesses and injuries.
The introduction of the system in Hong Kong marks a significant milestone in protecting outdoor workers from the risks posed by extreme heat. Through its tailored recommendation and solid scientific basis, the system helps to mitigate heat-related illnesses and ensure workers’ well-being. However, challenges remain, including the need for stronger enforcement, collaboration among stakeholders, and the provision of resources for vulnerable workers.
To build resilience in the face of a changing climate, it is imperative that we recognise the urgency of addressing heat stress and prioritise the safety of our workers. By continuing to monitor and evaluate the system, promoting public awareness and education, and fostering collaboration among all stakeholders, we can create a safer and more resilient work environment for all.
Originally published on Orange News on 15 May 2023. Written by Lawrence Iu.