This summer, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers toiled in temperatures of up to 45°C for up to 10 hours a day as Qatar’s construction boom hit its peak ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the Guardian reported.
The Qatari authorities, in line with other countries across the Persian Gulf, have said they are protecting workers from heat-related injuries through a work ban that prohibits manual labor in unshaded outdoor areas between 11:30 and 3 p.m. from mid-June to August.
Yet a Guardian analysis of official weather data over a nine-year period showed that the working ban does not keep workers safe. In the hours outside the ban, anyone working outdoors is still being exposed to potentially fatal levels of heat stress between June and September, which cardiologists say is leading to high numbers of fatalities every year.
The analysis also found dangerous levels of heat exposure continues into the cooler months.
Doha is currently hosting the World Athletics Championships, with athletes and sports professionals describing extreme heat conditions over the weekend. Yet outside of the air-conditioned stadiums, workers remain at risk of serious harm from heat stress between 9:00 a.m. and 12:00 noon throughout October.
Working in high temperatures puts a huge strain on the human cardiovascular system, with extreme heat stress leading to fatal heart attacks and other cardiovascular fatalities, recent research has shown.
Every year hundreds of workers — many young men between 25 and 35 years old — die while working in Qatar. The majority of these deaths are attributed to cardiovascular causes or “natural death” by the Qatari authorities.
Yet recent research published in the Cardiology Journal by a group of leading climatologists and cardiologists concluded that the deaths were likely to be caused by heatstroke, exploring the correlation between the deaths of 1,300 Nepali workers between 2009 and 2017, and rising temperatures.
The research found that in the cooler months about 22 percent of deaths year-on-year were attributed to heart attacks, cardiac arrest or other cardio-related causes by the Qatari authorities. In the summer months this spiked to 58 percent.
“From our research it was clear that workers are being recruited in their home countries partly on the basis of their health and are arriving in the Persian Gulf fit for work,” said Dr. Dan Atar, professor of cardiology and head of research at Oslo University Hospital, who coauthored the research into cardiovascular deaths and heat stress.
“Young men have a very low incidence of heart attacks yet hundreds of them are dying every year in Qatar attributed to cardiovascular causes. The clear conclusion that I draw from this as a cardiologist is that these deaths are caused by deadly heatstroke. Their bodies cannot take the heat stress they are being exposed to.”
Atar said that according to the research, as many as 200 of the 571 young men who died of cardiovascular causes between 2009 and 2017 could have been saved if effective heat protection measures had been implemented as part of occupational health and safety programs.
Qatar’s construction boom ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup has seen the country’s migrant worker population rise to 1.9 million, many of these young men from Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan who travel to the country to build the stadiums, roads and hotels that will service the tournament.
Of the 11 worker fatalities of workers linked to World Cup stadiums recorded by Qatar’s Supreme Committee, the body responsible for workers’ health and safety last year, nine were attributed to sudden heart attacks or respiratory failure.
“With the World Cup only two years away, the high number of deaths of young men from cardiac arrest in Qatar must be investigated urgently,” said Nick McGeehan, director of Fair/Square Projects, which has conducted research on heat stress and migrant worker rights.
“For years human rights campaigners have been raising the impact of heat stress on worker fatalities and yet the deaths continue.”
Speaking to the Guardian this August, migrant workers said they suffered from a range of heat-related conditions, including skin allergies, headaches, altered vision, light-headedness and difficulty breathing. “In one minute I’m soaked in sweat,” said one Nepali construction worker.
The Guardian used weather data from 2008-2017 to calculate the wet-bulb globe temperature (WBGT) for Qatar, an internationally used metric that uses wind speed, solar radiation, humidity and air temperature to assess the impact of heat stress on the human body.
Qatar’s Supreme Committee, which is in charge of worker welfare on World Cup sites, said they had put in place a series of measures to mitigate the risk of heat exposure, including requiring contractors to run heat stress management plans and provide temperature and humidity readings during the summer period. This year it said it also provided thousands of workers with cooling towels and cooling vests.
The Qatari authorities and the Supreme Committee also said it had conducted research with the International Labor Organization (ILO) and climate academics to assess the impact of workplace heat stress on workers, which looked at mitigation measures including on-site cooling rooms and improving rest break schedules.
As well as the 11:30 a.m.-3:00 p.m. work ban, the Qatari authorities have instructed employers that laborers should not work more than five hours during the summer period.
A government spokesperson said, “We know that working conditions, particularly in summer, can be challenging and that heat stress needs particular attention … which is why we have introduced legislation to manage this in 2007 and, more recently, national heat stress guidance.”