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Heat Stress Research Aimed at Helping Workers

Heat Stress Research Aimed at Helping Workers

A team of Nelson-based researchers hopes their work will one day lead to improvements in the lives of workers in some of the world’s hottest places.

The Hothaps research team is led by Professor Tord Kjellstrom and includes Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology (NMIT) tutors Bruno Lemke and Matthias Otto as well as Drs Olivia Hyatt, Chris Freyberg and Dave Briggs.

They’ve been working together for several years and have published more than 60 scientific reports on heat stress and its impact on productivity and human health. In 2013 the team travelled to Chennai, India to present their findings at a National Research Conference on Climate Change. They also presented their
findings to trainee nurses at an Indian medical university and visited some Indian factories.

Bruno Lemke is a former physicist and now a health tutor at NMIT. He explains that the main thrust of the research activity is around the effects of heat stress in the workplace – from both a health and productivity point of view.

The team uses a custom software programme developed by NMIT IT Tutor Matthias Otto to analyse massive amounts of data gathered from some of the world’s hottest places.

Bruno Lemke says about four billion people live and work in the worst heat-affected areas of the planet and climate change is increasing the environmental heat conditions in most parts of the world, including
New Zealand. In many tropical and sub-tropical countries, workers have few workplace protections and can be subject to extreme heat stress conditions. In places like the factories and sweatshops of India, the underground mines of Africa and even the cotton fields of the southern United States, workers are subjected to scorching high temperatures.

“We know from case studies and media reports that a lot of people die as a result of heat stress in the workplace in these hot places- but their deaths often aren’t tracked or properly accounted for, so no one really knows the true impact of heat stress related deaths,” says Bruno. “Basically at a body temperature above 40 degrees Celsius, the body systems start to shut down and at 42 degrees, you can get permanent brain damage and die. People can become acclimatised to hotter temperatures but at best, this only adds an extra two
degrees to what we can tolerate,” he says.

Bruno Lemke says while the team was initially focussed on heat stress from a human health point of view, it soon became clear that it would be easier to gather data from workplaces by looking at productivity and the economic outputs from businesses. “Our research has shown that in many tropical and sub-tropical areas, ten to 20 percent of annual work hours are currently ‘lost’ due to excessive heat and these losses are expected to double during this century unless effective prevention is applied.

“Even in New Zealand heat stress is already a problem for working people during the hottest days each year.

The team has carried out interviews with workers in forestry, agriculture, sheep shearing, construction and some other occupations, and they report the need for slowing down work, drinking water and taking more rest during hot days.

“We want to highlight the conditions people are working under both in New Zealand and in tropical countries in order to alert people to the need for health protection now and in the future as climate change makes the world hotter. We also want to demonstrate to employers that heat stress can result in massive productivity losses - so it’s in everyone’s best interests to try and improve conditions for workers,” he says.

Further information about the Hothaps research is available on the team’s open access website www.climatechip.org.

ENDS

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