Hot Times: Dealing with extreme Heat

Author: Hannes Rügheimer

Aug 10, 2022 Safety at work / Safety at home / Sustainability

Heat waves are becoming the norm in Europe now, too. Summer temperatures above 40 degrees are no longer an exception in many countries. What should you bear in mind in the face of extreme heat – both in your private life and at work?

Spain, Portugal, Italy, France – the reports of extreme temperatures in the northern hemisphere are coming in thick and fast this summer. With temperatures persistently above 40 degrees Celsius, rivers are drying up, forest fires are increasing, and the first fatalities have been reported. India was already plagued by extreme heat in the spring of 2022. And even in traditionally more temperate regions such as Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, temperatures are rising more frequently than many can bear. The consequences of global climate change are already abundantly clear, forcing people to respond.
Individual countries are responding to threats such as drought or the significant risk increase of forest fires with climate protection targets and, in some cases, specific heat action plans. After around twenty thousand people died in France in 2003 from what was then an unseasonable heat wave, the country was the first in Europe to develop comprehensive heat action plans. Cities keep registers of single people over 60. When heat warnings are issued for more than three days, social workers systematically call them and advise them on how to avoid health consequences. If necessary, they bring water to elderly citizens, and people at risk can stay in cooled public rooms. Comparable programs now exist in Spain, Portugal, Turkey, and many other countries. Even in cooler northern Europe, countries such as Finland, Norway, and Sweden are preparing for possible heat waves with national action plans.
Urban greening against heat islands
In addition, cities around the world are beginning to create natural cooling zones through new green spaces, trees, and plants. If around ten percent of a city’s open spaces were greened, it could reduce the outside temperature by up to three degrees. This is the calculation made by the German Federal Environment Ministry in its “Green Book”. The measures will be updated and expanded with the “Natural Climate Protection Action Program”, on which the German government is currently working. Many of the measures are being developed in close cooperation with local authorities – because climate adaptation must always take local conditions into account, according to the German government. The shading of public buildings, hospitals, schools, and daycare centers plays a central role.
What experts urgently advise against, however, is the rapidly increasing installation of air conditioning systems, especially among private individuals in traditionally less heat-plagued countries. If the majority of buildings were cooled in this way, the outside temperatures would rise by several degrees due to waste heat. It would make more sense, for example, to green office buildings, explains Professor Maarten van Aalst, who conducts research on climate impacts and disaster prevention at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. He also works in Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on climate risk assessment. He says that anyone setting up a new office building today should not only think about energy efficiency, but also about how to deal with extreme heat.
This advice, which is primarily aimed at companies, also applies to the private sector – like residential buildings, apartment buildings, and single-family homes. With well thought-out ventilation concepts, the insulation required for energy-efficient heating, for example with heat pumps, can in turn also keep cooler interior temperatures in the building for longer.
Extreme heat increases accidents
Extreme heat is noticeable in many areas of life – including road traffic. DEKRA accident researchers, for example, point out that concentration and reaction times drop rapidly at high temperatures. This applies to the operation of machines, but also to driving. In this context, the correct use of air conditioning systems in vehicles is also important. Whenever possible, parking in the shade or a cool parking garage should keep the temperature in the vehicle low from the start. Even sun protection mats and roller blinds have an effect.
Advice for rapid cooling once on the road: With the car windows closed, set the air conditioning to circulating air, a high fan output, and low temperature, then readjust it later. To ensure that the heat shock when getting out of the car is not too great, the interior should not be cooled down too much. Experts recommend a difference between the interior and exterior temperature of six to eight degrees Celsius.
More caution when spending time outdoors
When spending time outdoors, DEKRA experts also point out the important role of effective sun protection. This applies not only to leisure activities, but also to outdoor work. Sunglasses, headgear, and protective clothing are obligatory when spending time in the blazing sun. The material from which the clothing is made is also important. Under no circumstances should you work with your upper body exposed, emphasizes DEKRA medical expert Dr. Jana Kreß. On the other hand, it is essential to apply sunscreen with sun protection factor 30 or more to uncovered areas. In addition, one should avoid, if possible, the intense radiation at midday and stay in the shade during this time
DEKRA reminds us that companies must also carry out a risk assessment for employees with outdoor activities and implement appropriate occupational safety measures. Employees must be offered precautions if they work outdoors for at least one hour at a time between 11 am and 4 pm CEST (Central European Summer Time) on at least 50 days between April and September. This would include textile sun protection, head and neck shading protection, sunglasses, and sunscreen.
However, it is also clear that in order to limit the growing probability of extreme weather events and rising average temperatures, there is no alternative to far-reaching and efficient climate protection measures. This applies equally to private and professional life, as well.