Heat wave in Europe: impact on health and occupational safety

Extreme temperatures force political action

UM – 08/2022

Temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius in Hamburg and London – what used to be unthinkable is almost part of normality after the sweltering summers of 2019, 2020 and also this year. Scientists state that heat waves in the UK are ten times more likely due to climate change. The Centre for Medical-Meteorological Research of the German Weather Service in Freiburg confirms: heat waves will occur more frequently and with greater intensity.

Extreme temperatures are not healthy

The influence of weather on health is manifold: Changing pollen seasons, high UV radiation and ozone levels, thermal stress. Heat stress and dehydration also exacerbate existing diseases such as respiratory, cardiovascular, and Alzheimer's disease. Increasingly, national statistical offices are also reporting an increase in the number of deaths. The World Health Organisation projects that climate change will cause about 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050.

Heat mortality statistics are the exception

It was particularly hot in Europe two weeks of July this year. The excess mortality adjusted for COVID-19 cases found by many statistical offices in Europe during this period is of concern. In Portugal, more than 1,000 people died from heat between July 7 and 18. Spain reported 1,682 deaths for the period between July 11 and 24. Both countries keep official statistics on heat-related deaths. However, most European countries do not have such specific coverage.

Excess mortality is a strong indication

In this respect, data on excess mortality are generally subject to uncertainty. In Germany, the number is particularly high: In the week starting July 18 alone, adjusted excess mortality was more than 3,000 deaths compared with the average for the past five years. Even though heat is not recorded as a factor in a person's death; a link between extremely high temperatures and increased deaths is very likely. This is also confirmed by the current study "Heat-related mortality in Germany between 1992 and 2021".

Heat requires workplace reforms

The health threats posed by climate change have become tangible. Politicians are called upon to act. This is also economically imperative. Back in 2018, the International Labour Organization calculated that the number of hours lost to work due to heat stress will increase by two per cent as early as 2030 assuming a rise in global temperatures by 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. This corresponds to a loss of 72 million full-time positions. Unions are pushing for workplace reforms such as new maximum temperatures. But it also needs government policies focused on the causes of climate change.