As global temperatures rise, farm workers are at greater risk of suffering heat stress or heatstroke, which can be deadly. With new technology and some basic health practices, farmers can ensure their staff are safe in the summer heat

Global temperatures are expected to rise by 1,5°C towards the end of the century as a result of climate change. The increased temperatures will greatly impact on industries operating outdoors including construction, forestry and agriculture. The United Nations International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates a 2,2-percent drop in working hours, which equals 80-million full-time jobs.

Employees will be required to work fewer hours to prevent health risks posed by the high temperatures. The ILO estimates that the agricultural sector will be the most affected, by 2030 accounting for 60 percent of working hours lost due to heat stress. The increased temperatures will also increase the number of deaths related to heat stress.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that globally between 2030 and 2050 there will be 38 000 additional deaths a year related to heat stress. To minimise harm, farmers should instil good health practices among employees to prevent heat exhaustion – a condition that can be managed by cooling down within 30 minutes.

Know the signs

It is important for workers to be able to identify the signs of heat exhaustion so that they can take a break and recover to prevent heatstroke. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include cool, moist skin with goose bumps when in the heat, heavy sweating, faintness, dizziness, fatigue, weakness, rapid pulse, muscle cramps and nausea.

If workers suffer from heat exhaustion, they should sit in a cool, shaded area and drink fluids to recover. Sports drinks can assist in a speedy recovery from heat exhaustion.

Prevention is key

The condition is caused by long hours in the sun conducting strenuous work. Frequent rests in a shaded area can assist in preventing heat exhaustion. In California, in the United States (US), employers are encouraged to let employees break for 10 minutes every two hours in temperatures exceeding 35°C.

Employers can encourage employees to take a lunch break during the heat of the day. Heat exhaustion is also caused by dehydration and wearing too many layers of thick, warm clothing. Workers should drink water often and wear light, breathable clothing.

Technology of the future

Faith Florez, a young app developer in the US, designed the Calor App which is aimed at preventing heatstroke among farm workers. The app although still being tested, will send and receive notification via a smart watch when temperatures exceed a certain threshold. It will notify workers of when to rest, what to wear, eat and drink to prepare for work in the field based on weather data and individual medical information.

The app will host short educational articles, videos and quizzes. Furthermore, it can notify emergency services, health agencies and the employer when the employee is in distress with built-in GPS tracking services.

While this technology is not yet available in South Africa, employers can start preparing for a rise in temperatures by educating employees on dressing correctly, taking breaks in shaded area and staying hydrated.

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