Heat waves are becoming more frequent and severe in India. From April to June, 10 to 20 heatwave days are expected, as opposed to a normal of four to eight days, said the Indian Meteorological Department. As heat and humidity levels rise due to climate change, construction workers will be among those worst affected. Working in the sun will take a toll on their health and, as a consequence, their earnings.

During the summer, around 60% of construction workers experience mild to severe heat-related symptoms, according to a survey by Ahmedabad’s Indian Institute of Public Health Gandhinagar. In addition, exposure to midday heat causes productivity losses of up to 20 minutes an hour in India, according to a study by North Carolina-based Duke University researchers.

A discussion conducted in March 3 by HeatWatch and Aajeevika Bureau/Work Fair and Free Foundation in Pune with 70 daily-wage building and other construction workers shed light on the challenges they faced working amidst extreme heat: heavy sweating, dry throats, intense thirst, spasms and cramps in the legs, and skin irritation. These are everyday occupational challenges, exacerbated in the summer months.

Participants highlighted their lack of access to clean water as their foremost challenge. This has led to an increased risk of dehydration-related health problems. Moreover, participants reported minimal respite between 12 pm to 3 pm – except perhaps an hour-long lunch break.

Workers reported fellow labourers fainting and getting dizzy while working under the direct sun at high heat exposure.

Women workers in addition to the pay parity, are particularly disadvantaged by extreme heat on two accounts: one, a lack of toilets has forced women to develop a habit of drinking less water and holding urine in, exacerbating health challenges. Two, the solution of rescheduling working hours to early morning or late evening to avoid afternoon peak heat hours might create hurdles for women due to care responsibilities in their households.

According to the Maharashtra Building & Other Construction Workers (Regulations of Employment & Conditions of Services) Rules 2007, the employer must maintain latrines, urinals, and washing facilities in clean and hygienic conditions. Although the rules also list comprehensive health and safety policies, these are mandated only for establishments employing 50 or more workers.

The testimonies of the event showed that workers in contractual, sub-contractual and small-scale construction sites are outside the ambit of formal protections and are exposed to grave health risks during heat waves and extreme heat conditions.

The dialogue also shed light on the prevalence of health problems like kidney stones, fungal infections and respiratory ailments among construction workers, directly attributable to their working conditions. These findings underscore the urgent need for comprehensive healthcare support and occupational health and safety policies tailored to the specific needs of informal construction workers.

In the aftermath of the dialogue, it is evident that mere awareness of heat-related risks is not enough. There is a pressing need to recognise the challenges caused by extreme heat for construction workers and recognise the right to protection from heat for workers. Employers and policymakers need to respond on two fronts: they must implement first aid protocols for heat-related emergencies and equip workers with the knowledge and practices such as drinking water every hour, maintaining a nutritious diet, covering their heads, to minimise the impact of extreme heat.

Second, employers must go beyond emergency response to improve everyday working conditions by providing protective gear designed to block radiant heat and facilitate air circulation. They must also provide access to clean water, washrooms, showers and proper sanitation facilities and, most crucially, enforce rest breaks during peak heat hours.

They must implement long-standing construction worker demands for rescheduled working hours with an earlier start in the day. Shelters and fans must also be made available at work sites to reduce heat stress among workers.

Additionally, there must be a concerted effort to address gender disparities and create an inclusive environment where all workers feel empowered to advocate for their rights. Together, these practices are essential to mitigate the risk of poor health and promote overall well-being.

In 2023, the labour secretary issued directives to construction companies to reschedule working hours and offer adequate rest times but in the absence of strict enforcement and penalties, the situation on the ground remains unchanged.

The Maharashtra Building and Construction Worker Welfare Board, the Directorate of Industrial Safety & Health, the Confederation of Real Estate Developers' Associations of India and sector experts could help conceptualise and enforce occupational safety and health protocols at construction sites.

Failing to act swiftly and decisively jeopardises the health and livelihoods of construction workers and other workers involved in outdoor occupations.

Apekshita Varshney is a journalist, development sector professional, and founder of Heatwatch, an initiative focused on expanding awareness and action around the impact of extreme heat and heatwaves on marginalised populations in India.

Anupriya S works on labour policy & practice with the Work Fair & Free Foundation, generating workers centric knowledge on migration, social security, occupational safety & health in the informal sector.