In Spain, the summer of 2023 was the third warmest since there are official records. Only the summers of 2022 and 2003 surpassed it in average temperatures, according to data from the State Meteorological Agency (Aemet), which counted four heat wavesin the last months of July and August, with maximum temperatures that exceeded 40ºC for several days in much of the territory.
Due to climate change, forecasts show that these extreme heat waves and episodes will become increasingly intense, longer and more frequent; a horizon that poses innumerable challenges for public health. Because high temperatures influence our risk of getting sick, losing quality of life or suffering a work accident in multiple ways, as a Spanish investigation has just demonstrated.
According to their data, the chances of being victims of a accident at work rise significantly during a heat wave. «There are many risk factors involved in workplace accidents. Some have to do with the individual himself and others with the work environment, but the environment to which the worker is exposed is also relevant,” he explains. Ana Santurtunprofessor in the Legal Medicine Unit of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Cantabria and main signatory of a research that has analyzed the impact of heat waves on work accidents in the provinces of Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia between 2005 and 2021.
«In the study we saw that heat waves increase the risk of workplace accidents, mainly due to accumulated exposure, that is, not at the beginning of the wave, but mainly in the following days», clarifies the researcher. “For example, in Madrid, after three days of heat we saw that the risk of accidents at work rises to around 5% and in Valencia it rises to 13% after five days of exposure.”
The links that link high temperatures with accidents at work have to do with the way our body manages heat, continues Santurtún. Under normal circumstances, the internal temperature of our body is not affected by the outside environment. Only when environmental temperatures rise does the body launch internal mechanisms, such as sweating or vasodilation, that allow excess heat to be managed. However, these mechanisms are finite and they do not work well with very pronounced and prolonged rises in the thermometer.