Heatstroke death in Spain sees outdoor workers call for more protection

The death of a Madrid street sweeper from heatstroke during the heatwave gripping Spain and Europe shows the dangers outdoor workers face from extreme temperatures.

Unions are calling for better protection for outdoor workers as summer temperatures soar. (Photo by CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP)

With heatwaves predicted to become more frequent and intense, unions are pushing for more protection for rubbish collectors, farm labourers, construction workers and others who work in the heat.

Under a deal reached between Madrid city hall and unions on Tuesday, manual street cleaning in the Spanish capital will be eliminated when temperatures rise above 39 degrees Celsius (102 degrees Fahrenheit).

In addition, shifts on days with extreme heat will start later to avoid the most intense heat.

The agreement comes after a 60-year-old street cleaner on a one-month contract died on Saturday, after he collapsed in the street from heatstroke while working the previous day.

At the time temperatures in Madrid neared 40C.

A 56-year-old warehouse worker in a Madrid suburb also died on Saturday after suffering heatstroke while on the job.

Emergency services said they found him unconscious, convulsing and with a body temperature of 42.9C.

“It’s scary,” said 52-year-old construction worker Javier Herreros, who wore a thick neon vest as he replaced cobblestones in the centre of Madrid under a blazing sun.

The past few days have been “very difficult”, he added.

“I don’t have health problems but since I work all day in the sun, I get really tired.”

‘Unsafe conditions’

Workers have suffered heat-related deaths elsewhere in Europe this month as temperatures of more than 40C have spelt misery for millions and shattered heat records.

Two farm workers died in early July in southern Italy while working in scorching temperatures.

Their deaths came a year after the heat-related death of a 27-year-old seasonal worker from Mali prompted several Italian regions to ban farm work during the hottest hours.

And this week two people died in separate accidents in France which are “possibly” linked to the heatwave, health authorities said Wednesday.

Across Europe the authorities have in recent days urged people to work from home if they can, and to take precautions if they work outdoors, such as drinking plenty of water.

But unions say this is not enough.

“Europe needs safe maximum working temperatures,” the European Trade Union Confederation tweeted.

“No one should have to work in unsafe conditions — stop the job when it’s too hot.”

Britain’s Trades Union Congress said it wants “to see a change in the law” that sets 30 degrees Celsius as the “maximum temperature” when work should stop.

‘Occupational hazard’

Spain’s largest union, the CCOO, said other measures are needed to reduce the risk to workers from scorching temperatures.

It proposes the introduction of extended breaks for workers who are the most exposed to the heat, and training sessions for employers.

The union also wants employers to identify all posts which are most exposed to high temperatures.

The Brussels-based European Trade Union Institute think-tank said in a recent report that “weather-related heat stress should be considered an escalating occupational hazard that deserves full societal recognition”.

“At present, wide swathes of workers suffer inaction on the part of employers while authorities tend to continue to turn a blind eye regarding extreme exposure during heatwaves,” the report added.

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Heavy rainfall helps contain huge wildfires in Spain’s Valencia region

Heavy rainfall on Wednesday night has helped contain huge wildfires raging in two areas of Spain's Valencian Community.

Heavy rainfall helps contain huge wildfires in Spain's Valencia region

A record-breaking heatwave and historically low rainfall have combined to cause wildfires across Spain this summer, with thousands of hectares burned in southern Extremadura and as far north as Asturias. 

This week the eastern Valencia region has struggled with two major fires. In Bejís, 70 kilometres northwest of Valencia, strong winds contributed to spread the blaze which has so far burnt up 10,000 hectares of land and forced the evacuation of 1,500 people.

READ MORE: Firefighters battle to control huge wildfire in Spain’s Valencia region

READ ALSO: Are Spain’s wildfires a risk to people’s health?

In the south of the region, another fire began when lightning hit the Vall d’Ebo area in Alicante province late on Saturday night. Like in Bejís, strong winds caused the blaze to spread and burned 11,000 hectares. The fire has forced the evacuation of more than 1,000 people, according to Valencia’s regional government.

In the Vall d’Ebo, locals were evacuated from the municipalities of Famorca, Facheca, Tollos, Beniaia, Benimassot, Benirrama and Beniali. 

In Bejís, the municipalities of Toràs, Bejís, Sacañet and Teresa were evacuated.

However stormy weather overnight has offered some respite to locals and firefighters and emergency services tackling the blazes. In Bejís, rains have helped party extinguish the flames, and down in Alicante heavier rain has all but done the job of the fire brigade for them. 

Between 14 and 20 litres of rain per square metre were recorded overnight in Bejís, which have significantly reduced the flames firefighters are facing, and in Alicante, around 40 litres/sqm of rain in 12 hours allowed emergency services to confirm on the morning of August 18th that there were no longer any active flames in the Alicante area.

READ ALSO: What to do and what to avoid if you witness a forest fire in Spain

“The perimeter is more stable after the rainfall. There has been a small reproduction in the Benimassot area, but it is already controlled,” emergency services said.

The entire Valencian Community remains on extreme alert level due to the risk of forest fires throughout the region.

Wildfire season

So far this year, Spain has suffered 391 wildfires, fuelled by scorching temperatures and drought conditions, which have destroyed a total of 271,020 hectares of land, according to the latest figures from the European Forest Fire Information System.

This year’s fires in Spain have been particularly devastating, destroying more than three times the area consumed by wildfires in the whole of 2021, which amounted to 84,827 hectares, the figures show.

Scientists say human-induced climate change is making extreme weather events, including heatwaves and droughts, more frequent and intense. They in turn increase the risk of fires, which emit climate-heating greenhouse gases.

READ MORE: ‘Thousands of hectares’ destroyed by wildfire in Spain

Fires have blazed across Europe, particularly in France, Greece and Portugal, making 2022 a record year for wildfires on the continent.

In Portugal, a wildfire brought under control last week reignited Tuesday in the UNESCO-designated Serra da Estrela natural park, the civil protection agency said.