Weather or not: Women workers need care in summer

There is a grave health concern around women manual workers who work under extreme conditions of heat with poor access to sanitary facilities. This needs urgent redressal at the policy level.
Women work under poor working conditions. (Source: Wkimedia Commons)
Women work under poor working conditions. (Source: Wkimedia Commons)

In a tropical country like India, the summer months are hot which threaten the health of millions of people every year. For example, in 2013, more than 600 deaths were reported due to heat waves in the states of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, where the temperatures soared to as high as 47.28 °C, while many other states such as Ahmedabad experienced severe drought and cases of heat-related fatality.

This paper, Heat stress and inadequate sanitary facilities at work places--An occupational health concern for women? published in the journal Global Health Action dated September 14, 2016, informs that hot work environments can be especially risky for workers from the unorganised sector engaged in manual work and can have a serious impact on their health besides affecting their productivity and daily incomes.

Many jobs, especially in informal sectors in developing countries such as India, have a large proportion of women workers engaged in works such as construction, brick making and agriculture that involve high heat exposure and heavy manual workload. Women bear the double burden--of household work and heavy manual work--which, when combined with the heat exposure, increase their health risks.

Heat stress and poor sanitation

If these are not enough, the lack of appropriate sanitation facilities at workplaces is an added burden on women. Although men too have to deal with poor sanitation, it is all the more difficult for women due to a number of physical, social and cultural barriers.

In a first-of-its-kind study that interviewed 312 women from three occupational sectors--namely brick manufacturing, steel manufacturing industry, and agricultural fields in Tamil Nadu, India--information on heat-related illnesses and sanitation facilities available to women employees at workplace, the water intake, heat stress, and workload and their perceptions on the health impacts of heat stress and lack of toilet facilities was collected.

The outcome of the study

Most of the women who took part in the study have been working in the agricultural fields and brick manufacturing units for more than 10 years while those in the steel manufacturing industry were employed for as long as eight years. All of them reportedly undergo chronic exposures to high heat at their workplace.

Forty-two percent of the women studied faced high-heat conditions throughout the year in their workplace, with significantly higher heat exposures during the summer season. As high as 73 percent of these women experienced chronic fatigue, 44 percent suffered from headaches, and 87 percent reported excessive sweating and thirst during work shifts.

Sixty-four percent of the women, mainly from the brick kiln and agricultural industries, did not have access to toilet facilities at their workplaces. Women without access to toilets were at six times higher risk of having genitourinary problems as compared with women having access to toilets, such as in the steel industry.

Women who had no access to toilets at workplaces often drank less water to avoid using the toilet which increased their risk of developing genitourinary problems by four times. Some women workers also reported being diagnosed with and treated for kidney stones. Ten percent of the women reported staying home from work during their menstrual period, compromising on their daily wages and undergoing the stress of displeasure of the supervisors.

Heat-related health issues were the highest among women in the brick and agriculture sectors and as high as 95 percent of the women workers experienced adverse health impacts due to heat stress. Although a high percentage of women working in the steel industry also reported adverse impacts of heat on their health, only 40 percent reported productivity loss because they cannot skip work days due to tight production targets.

The women in the steel industry work very hard, often beyond their limits, to meet the targets for the day. Working at high temperatures and beyond their work capacity without appropriate rest, increased their risk of developing heat-related illnesses. However, they were partially protected by insurance and had an occupational health centre in case of occurrence of any heat-related health issues.

Thanks to increased heat and lack of sanitation facilities and the resultant behavioural modifications adopted by women (reduced water intake, for instance), they experienced chronic dehydration that increased their risk for developing kidney anomalies, urinary tract infections and increased cardiovascular strain due to heat stress.

The paper says that the poor work environments such as high heat stress and lack of sanitary facilities provided at workplaces in India increase the health risks of women workers who are much more vulnerable than men because of the physical, physiological and cultural barriers they face.

Finding the right solutions

It is essential to urgently address these issues at workplaces which can go a long way in reducing anxiety, improving work performance and productivity, making women feel comfortable even during their menstrual cycle. Providing adequate and appropriate basic sanitation facilities at workplaces will also help attract more women to employment, reduce absenteeism, improve the health and welfare of working women.

Dialogue and cooperation between the public health authorities, non-governmental organisations, women’s groups, employers, and the labour ministry are needed to set the stage for improving the occupational health of women in the country. At the same time, intervention studies and further research are needed to understand the ground realities better. The study findings need to be translated to comprehensive gender-sensitive labour policies and workplace interventions in order to make work environment more hospitable for women.

A copy of the paper can be downloaded from below: