Heatwave in Europe: Spanish worker’s death from heatstroke must adapt to climate change and help the poor

MADRID — When José Antonio González started his afternoon shift as a street sweeper in Madrid, the temperature was 104 degrees Fahrenheit amid a heatwave that gripped Spain.

After a long period without a job, González could not afford to pass up a month-long summer contract to sweep the city, where he lived in a working-class neighborhood.

Three hours later, the 60-year-old collapsed from heat stroke and was found lying in the street he was cleaning.

An ambulance took the father-of-two to hospital, where he died last weekend.

His death sparks a debate in Spain on the need to adapt working conditions to climate change. The poorest in society – often the elderly and low-wage earners such as construction workers and delivery workers for whom heat stress is a workplace hazard – have long been identified as being disadvantaged in efforts to adaptation to rising temperatures.

“It is clear that social inequalities play a role” in people’s suffering during heat waves, says Júlio Díaz of the Carlos III Health Institute in Spain.

“Enduring a heat wave in an air-conditioned house with a swimming pool is not the same as five people in the same room with a window as the only source of fresh air,” Díaz told Spanish public broadcaster RTVE.

Recent scorching weather in Europe, which has also seen a sharp increase in the number and size of wildfires, brings the issue to the fore.

France had already taken steps to alleviate heat inequality after a 2003 heat wave caused 15,000 heat-related deaths, many of them elderly people left in urban apartments and nursing homes without air conditioning.

Ahead of the latest heatwave in France, which has seen record temperatures in recent days, the government reminded employers of their legal obligation to protect workers in extreme heat. This includes free drinking water, ventilation and, if possible, modifying working hours and providing additional breaks.

And as Britain braced for last week’s heatwave, which saw temperatures hit a national record 104.5 degrees Fahrenheit on Tuesday, unions urged the government to impose temperatures for the first time maximum in the workplace. Many homes, small businesses and even public buildings in Britain are not air-conditioned.

Unite, the nation’s largest union, is pushing for a maximum workplace temperature of 80.6 degrees Fahrenheit for “arduous” jobs and 86 degrees for sedentary jobs. The union also says employers should be required to take action to reduce indoor temperatures and impose strict protections on outdoor workers whenever temperatures reach 75.2 degrees.

“As the climate changes, it is essential that health and safety legislation is updated to reflect the serious challenges this poses for workers,” said Rob Miguel, Unite National Health and Safety Advisor. of security.

In Madrid, González’s 21-year-old son, Miguel Ángel, said his father, days before his death, searched the internet for “how to deal with heat stroke”. The day before he died, he had returned home from his cleaning service out of breath.

Scientists say worsening of pre-existing conditions, not heatstroke itself, is the leading cause of high temperature-related death.

The Carlos III Health Institute estimates that 150 deaths in Spain were somehow linked to the heat wave on the day González died. The following day, the institute attributed 169 deaths to heat, bringing a total of 679 cases in the first week of the heat wave alone.

In places accustomed to high temperatures, such as the southern region of Andalusia in Spain, construction workers already work only in the morning during the summer.

Three days after González’s death, Madrid officials agreed with groups of workers that street cleaners could postpone their afternoon shift and instead work amid cooler evening temperatures.

Robert M. Larson