As Ontario summers get hotter, should outside workers have to labour in sweltering heat?

Many of Toronto’s workers are managing to escape this summer’s sweltering heat inside air conditioned offices, but outdoor workers have no such option and experts warn there are very few protections in place to keep them safe.

Ivan Ostos, who helped organize a drive dubbed Foodsters United aimed at unionizing his fellow food couriers, said working outdoors once temperatures topped 30 C has been “absolutely exhausting”.

“At that level of heat it doesn’t matter if you are drinking water constantly or trying to stay in the shade as much as possible,” Ostos said.

Many delivery companies do little to help their employees during extreme weather events and have no legal obligation to do so, he told CBC Toronto.

“They once gave out rain jackets but what’s the use of those during heat waves?”

Current sun safety guidelines set out by Ontario’s Ministry of Labour for outdoor workers are dated and it’s time these rules changed, he said.

“Let’s get real; we are approaching a climate catastrophe and Canada is going to go from a country known for having cold winters to sweltering summers,” Ostos added.

“We need to take a hard look at this and understand that legislation is required to protect people working outside.”

No specific guidelines for extreme temperatures

Ontario’s Ministry of Labour told CBC Toronto there are no set minimum or maximum temperature limits for outside workplaces.

“Either extreme heat or cold may be a hazard, temperature is a legitimate issue in determining workplace safety,” the ministry said.

The federal government has a similar stance on temperature limits.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) said current rules are not always specific about what is considered an acceptable range for temperature conditions at work, especially when working outdoors.

No specific maximum temperature limit has been set because exposure to high heat depends on several factors, including relative humidity, exposure to the sun or other heat sources and physical work demands, CCOHS said.

However, the centre said employers have a duty of care to take “every reasonable precaution” to ensure the workplace was safe for their workers, including taking measures to protect workers from heat stress disorders.

But Thomas Tenkate, director of Ryerson’s School of Occupational and Public Health, said heat stress and its symptoms are not well defined under this duty of care, meaning a large number of business don’t take sun safety seriously because they aren’t legally required to.

Legislation needs to be a more specific and with definable terms, or else it will continue to be ignored, Tenkate said.

“You don’t expect someone who works around asbestos to continue working or buy their own respirator or coveralls. Why should outdoor workers be required to keep working when it’s really hot, or buy their own sunscreen,” he said.

The risks of working outdoors during a heatwave

Lindsay McCallum, a senior project manager at Toronto Public Health, said exposure to hot temperatures can be dangerous, with impacts ranging from mild symptoms such as heat rash or fainting, through to more serious conditions like heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

“Heatstroke can result in severe complications, including kidney, liver and brain damage, and ultimately death,” she said.

Heat could also aggravate pre-existing conditions, particularly chronic cardiovascular and respiratory disorders, McCallum said.

However, heat-related illnesses can be prevented by drinking plenty of cool water, wearing loose, light-coloured, breathable clothing and a wide-brimmed hat while outdoors, she added.

While everyone is at risk from heat-related illness, health risks are greatest for seniors; infants and young children; people with chronic illnesses; those who are homeless; and those who work or exercise outdoors, she said.

The new normal

The senior climatologist for Environment Canada, Dave Phillips, told CBC Hamilton that Canadians won’t be able to recognize the climate in 40 years.

“One of the easiest things to suggest in an altered climate is the fact that extremes of heat during the summertime will be much more than we’re used to.”

Models suggest coming years will bring longer heat waves that are more “torrid and intense,” along with more unpredictable weather in all seasons.

Scientists typically use the 30 C mark as a threshold for hot, humid days that are considered unhealthy.

“If we look at the Hamilton-Toronto area we typically get now about 16 days a year when temperatures would be at or above 30 degrees,” Phillips explained. “But we see by 2050 … it would be more like 50 days.”

By the end of the century, the models show that number could hit 77 — more than two straight months of temperatures of 30 C or higher, with humidex values in the 40s or 50s.

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