Heat-health vulnerabilities in the climate change context—comparing risk profiles between indoor and outdoor workers in developing country settings

Author: Vidhya Venugopal et al.

Year: 2021

Published in: Environmental Research Letters

Occupational heat stress is a crucial risk factor for a range of Heat-Related Illnesses (HRI). Outdoor workers in unorganized work sectors exposed to high ambient temperatures are at increased risk in developing countries. We aim to compare HRI, Productivity Loss (PL), and reduced renal health risk between workers from outdoor unorganized (N = 1053) and indoor organized (N = 1051) work sectors. Using descriptive methods and a large epidemiological cross-sectional study using mixed methods, we compared risk patterns between the two groups. We analyzed the risk of self-reported HRI symptoms, Heat Strain Indicators (HSIs), PL, and reduced kidney function using Multivariate Logistic Regression (MLR) models. Although Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) exposures were high in both the outdoor and indoor sectors, significantly more Outdoor Unorganized Workers (OUWs) reported heat stress symptoms (45.2% vs 39.1%) among 2104 workers. OUWs had a significantly higher share of the heavy workload (86.7%) and long years of heat exposures (41.9%), the key drivers of HRIs, than the workers in indoor sectors. MLR models comparing the indoor vs outdoor workers showed significantly increased risk of HRI symptoms (Adjusted Odds Ratio) (AORoutdoor = 2.1; 95% C.I:1.60–2.77), HSI (AORoutdoor = 1.7; 95% C.I:1.00–2.93), PL (AORoutdoor = 11.4; 95% C.I:7.39–17.6), and reduced kidney function (Crude Odds Ratio) (CORoutdoor = 1.4; 95% C.I:1.10–1.84) for the OUWs. Among the heat-exposed workers, OUW had a higher risk of HRI, HSI, and PL even after adjusting for potential confounders. The risk of reduced kidney function was significantly higher among OUWs, particularly for those with heat exposures and heavy workload (AORoutdoor = 1.5; 95% C.I: 0.96–2.44, p = 0.073) compared to the indoor workers. Further, in-depth studies, protective policies, feasible interventions, adaptive strategies, and proactive mitigation efforts are urgently needed to avert health and productivity risks for a few million vulnerable workers in developing nations as climate change proceeds.