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Blue-Collar Workers Are At Great Risk Of Heat Stress

With temperatures from 25oC to 34oC on a normal day[1], there is no doubt that Malaysia is a hot country. Living near the equator, Malaysians have grown up, putting up with either being too hot or too humid. It’s literally rain or shine. 

But in recent years, Malaysia has gotten warmer. Upon further investigation, a land temperature study revealed that several cities showed temperature rises between 1.64°C – 6.75°C over the last few decades[2]. These cities included Bayan Lepas (Penang), George Town (Penang), Ipoh (Perak), Johor Bahru (Johor) and Kuala Lumpur. What this means is, before long, Malaysia’s temperature will reach a point of unbearable heat. 

There are already signs of this happening. 

Source: Eco Business

Early in 2021, Malaysia’s Meteorology Department (MET Malaysia),  announced that seven areas in Peninsular Malaysia had recorded yellow (alert) heatwaves. Yellow level refers to a daily maximum temperature of 35 to 37oC for at least three consecutive days[3]. The affected areas were Chuping (Perlis), Kota Star, (Kedah), Kuala Kangsar (Perak), Sepang, (Selangor); Alor Gajah, (Melaka), Tangkak (Johor) and Batu Pahat (Johor)[3]

Who Is Most Affected By Hot Weather? 

As Malaysia forges forward towards urban development, a large portion of the nation’s workforce is those involved in blue-collar careers or jobs out in the sun[4]. Blue-collar jobs are defined as careers that require low-skilled or specific semi-skilled trades such as those who engage in hard manual labour, typically agriculture, manufacturing, construction, mining, or maintenance[4]. Other known careers include fishermen, construction workers and the increasing army of delivery runners. These jobs entail long hours of hard labour under the mercy of the sun, leaving the workers extremely vulnerable to heat-related illnesses, for a small paycheck. These health risks are much more than just a bad sunburn. 

Source: PBC Today

While white-collar workers are well acquainted with stress at work, blue-collar workers experience heat stress, a condition caused by exposure to extreme heat. It occurs when the body is unable to maintain a healthy temperature in response to a hot environment. Workers who develop heat stress are constantly exposed to high temperatures and they typically have long shifts and may be either ill-equipped or inadequately trained by their employers to recognise this illness to take preventative measures[5].

Source: New Straits Times

According to the Ministry of Health’s clinical guidelines, heat-related illness is a medical emergency and may lead to mortality as high as 70% in cases of heat stroke[5]. There are six types of heat-related illnesses and heatstroke being the most severe[5]

  • Heat edema: Mild swelling of feet, ankle and hands because of days of heat exposure
  • Prickly Heat: Rashes over covered areas of the body (may lead to chronic dermatitis)
  • Heat Cramps: Painful, involuntary spasms, sweating
  • Heat Tetany: Hyperventilation, abnormal pricking sensation of the limbs and around the mouth (caused by nerve damage), & spasms of the hands and feet
  • Heat Syncope: low blood pressure
  • Heat Exhaustion: Headache, Nausea, Vomiting, Dizziness, Muscle cramps, may progress to heat stroke if fails to improve with treatment[5]

Those who work or are confined to spaces with intense heat can experience three types of heatstroke, each varying in severity and if not managed well can lead to death[5]

  • Classical Heat Stroke: Common during severe heat waves[5]
  • Exertional Heat Stroke: Occurs over hours in normal or humid or hot environments (common in Malaysia)[5]
  • Confinement Hyperpyrexia: exposed to heat in enclosed space like “children inside cars” or workers are occupationally exposed to heat inside enclosed space[6]

In 2016 alone, there were 200 cases of heat-related illnesses reported in government hospitals. Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah, the nation’s health Director-General stated that there were 52 cases (26%) of heat cramps, 126 cases of heat exhaustion (63%) and 22 were due to heat stroke (11%)[7].

These heat-related illnesses are not new occurrences, however, with the perpetual rise in temperature, these illnesses may see a steady upward trend if not managed well. The ones that will feel it most are those whose livelihoods depend on them being out in the sun and facing harsh weather conditions. 

What Exactly Do Blue-Collar Workers Have To Deal With? 

It is important to remember that this category includes local, foreign and stateless low-skilled or semi-skilled workers – all of them belonging to the low-income demographic[8].

A study in Kuala Lumpur identified that most blue-collar workers earn between RM1,000 – RM3,000 a month. In terms of educational attainment, the majority are high school graduates[8]

As both local and foreign blue-collar workers are the frontline community, they are equally at risk of environmental health and safety hazards in their living and work environment. The average blue-collar employee works in temperatures of roughly 30.5oC throughout an eight-hour shift[9]. However, it is not uncommon for informal workers such as the foreign labour force to work even longer hours[10]. On top of the constant physical, verbal and mental abuse by employers, these workers are expected to complete their work in extreme heat[10]. Throughout those eight hours, roughly 44% of workers have experienced moderate to severe heat-related illnesses[9]

Sometimes, I can’t take it anymore. Because we have to tolerate being in the sun. The sun is horrible. I can’t take it anymore. For example, when we have to paint the roof. Painting the roof is very hot. It’s hot on top of the roof, and also under the room. If it’s like that, we are very happy. If we work inside, it is O.K. because we are not in the sun. – Refugee construction worker[10]

Source: The Guardian

Another study around migrant workers in the palm oil sector, described “an army of migrant workers toiling in the heat” as they use long poles to saw fruit branches in high trees, before carrying piles of the fruit into trucks to be processed. This working cycle goes on for hours and hours covering acres of plantation land[11]

Sadly, the sun isn’t the only weather that blue-collar workers have to battle with.  

As merciless rain beats upon the earth, one wonders whether heat or torrential rain is better. Heavy rain and thunderstorms are an annual problem for outdoor workers, whether blue-collar workers, fishermen, farmers, or delivery runners. 

Who hasn’t heard about the hardships of grab riders riding blind in a thunderstorm, or the sun burned food panda runners? 

Source: Malaysiakini

For a mere RM10 per order (Grab) or RM8 (Food Panda)[12], these runners have to show up despite bad weather conditions and navigate through the heavy downpour, thunder, lightning and extreme heat to make a living. Some are often left stranded outside restaurants and malls waiting for the rain to stop, whilst others choose to ride in the rain just to make sure that their orders are delivered on time[13]. Let’s not forget our local farmers, fishermen and blue-collar workers face the same problem. 

Source: Says

At the end of the day, there are so many challenges these workers have to face when trying to make an honest living. Environmental factors alone include heat waves and thunderstorms that are just getting worse; air pollution and emissions from local industries are additional hazards that eventually impact their quality of health over the long run. 

Blue-collar workers put themselves out there to make a living. Without them, many industries will be at a loss because they represent the army of workers doing things that not many would want to do. Employers need to be aware of blue-collar employees’ working conditions and create incentives and benefits that will ensure their quality of health and livelihood. 

Explore Our Sources:

  1. MET Malaysia. (2021). Ramalan cuaca seluruh negara pada 27hb Mei 2021 dikeluarkan oleh Jabatan Meteorologi Malaysia. Link.
  2. Think City (2020). Visualising Malaysian Cities. Urban analytics. Link.
  3. Bernama. (2021). Yellow level heatwave in seven areas in Peninsula. New Straits Times. Link.
  4. DOSM. (2020). Labour Market Review Malaysia, Fourth Quater 2020. Link.
  5. Ministry of Health Malaysia. (2016). Clinical Guidelines on Management of Heat-Related Illness at Health Clinic and Emergency and Trauma Department, Ministry of Health, Malaysia. Link
  6. P. Pholvicha. (n.d.) Topic Review. Heat Emergencies. Link.
  7. L. F. Fong. (2016). 200 Heat-Related Cases This Year. The Star. Link.
  8. N. A. Kamaludin & V. How. (2016). The Inequality of Environmental Health Awareness among Foreign Immigrants and Local Blue-Collar Workers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Link.
  9. Z. Mansor, R. Ismail, N. H. Ismail, J. H. Hashim. (2019). Effects of hydration practices on the severity of heat-related illness among municipal workers during a heatwave phenomenon. Link.
  10. M. Nungsari, S. Flanders, H. Y. Chuah. (2020). Poverty and precarious employment: the case of Rohingya refugee construction workers in Peninsular Malaysia. Link.
  11. S. Z. Al-Mahmood. (2015). Palm-Oil Migrant Workers Tell of Abuses on Malaysian Plantations. The Wall Street Journal. Link
  12. CompareHero.My. (2021). How Much Can A GrabFood Or Foodpanda Rider Make? Link.
  13. J. Cho. (2020). Delivery Rider Seeks M’sians Understanding During Thunderstorm; Shares Plight Of Other Riders Too. The Smart Local. Link.
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