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Heat events put workers at risk

By Gabriela Calugay-Casuga - Rabble, July 25, 2022

As summers are getting hotter around the world, workers are at risk. After the UK hit record temperatures the week of July 19, Canada’s Atlantic provinces are now under a heat warning along with Southern Ontario and parts of Quebec, according to the public weather alerts from Environment Canada.

Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) put out a statement urging members to be prepared to work in the heat. 

“Summer is late this year. With a few exceptions across the country, where they have experienced brief periods of heat, the hot weather is overdue,” CUPW said in their statement. “However, we must not regard this situation as the norm and disregard the eventual heat waves that will inevitably occur in the weeks to come.”

Heat events have been devastating for some communities. In the 80s, Unifor lost a member to heat stress. Sari Sairanen, Unifor’s director of the Health, Safety and Environment Department, said that although it has been decades, tragedies such as this remain in the collective memory and impact how unions approach emergency preparedness plans amidst rising temperatures.

According to the website for the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), there is no legislation that lays out a maximum temperature that workers can be exposed to at work. They said that exposure limits are influenced not only by temperature but also by relative humidity, exposure to sun or other heat sources, amount of air movement, how physically demanding the work is, how acclimatized the worker is to their workload, what clothing is worn (including protective clothing) and the work-rest regimen. 

CUPW laid out some precautions that workers can take to keep safe in the hot weather. These precautions include taking all the breaks that workers are provided and slowing down to avoid overworking in the heat. 

Employers have a responsibility to keep workers cool

While these precautions can help workers keep safe from heat related illnesses such as heat exhaustion or heat stroke, the responsibility of workers’ safety falls on employers as well, said Sylvia Boyce, Safety Coordinator for the United Steelworkers (USW) District 6. 

“There’s lots that can be done and should be done and I hope that all employers are doing these things because they do have an obligation to take every reasonable precaution to ensure the workplace is safe for the workers,” Boyce said in an interview with

Boyce said that employers should use fans and air cooling systems indoors, provide more breaks to workers exposed to extreme heat and rotate workers that do physically demanding jobs. 

Boyce also said that as temperatures continue to rise due to climate change, it may be time to update emergency preparedness plans in workplaces. 

“All regions in Canada have been experiencing warmer weather. The temperature changes are going to continue to arise according to our Canada’s Climate Change report,” Boyce said. “I think increases in the temperature do pose significant health risks to workers due to heat related illnesses. Training is huge, and employers have that general duty to take all precautions to protect their workers.” 

Sairanen from Unifor said that although emergency preparedness plans will be helpful to protect workers, legislation is also needed. Current legislation protects the worker’s right to be informed of the risks present in their workplace and their right to refuse to work in dangerous conditions. However, Sairanen said this legislation places too much onus on the worker. 

“Legislation needs to give that sharper end of the stick to those in control of the workplace,” she said. “What legislation could do is take some of that imbalance of power in the workplace and put the legal onus more on the employer. It should inform the employer and the workers of the minimum standards that we expect in the workplace, to ensure everyone is healthy and safe physically and psychologically.” 

Training to recognize heat illness needed

The CCOHS said that victims of heat stroke are often not able to recognize the symptoms in themselves and that is why it’s important that co-workers be able to recognize signs and symptoms. This is something that Boyce said should be done as well. 

“It shouldn’t be an option. It should be automatic that all supervisors and all workers are trained on how to prevent heat stress and how to recognize the signs and the symptoms,” Boyce said. “All workers should know how to respond if heat stress is suspected, but supervisors should be checking frequently with the workers to identify any potential heat stress symptoms.” 

As well as providing training to prepare workers for heat events, Boyce also said it’s important that people recognize that heat affects everyone differently. If the differences of heat effects from person to person are not acknowledged it could become an accessibility issue, she said. 

“When you look at generalizing temperatures people often imagine that a worker is healthy, fit, doesn’t have any underlying health issues, and is acclimatized,” Boyce said. “That’s not always the case. There could be underlying medical conditions and what might be easier for one person to tolerate could be different for someone else. Employers shouldn’t have expectations that everybody is the same.” 

While the conditions that can cause heat related illness differ from person to person, it is important that every worker knows their rights. 

In an email to, Bea Bruske, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said, “workers have the right to refuse unsafe work. When dangerously high summer temperatures occur – safety must come first. Certainly for those who work outside but also for those who labour in conditions where there isn’t access to climate-controlled cooling stations.”

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author.

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