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Qatar's workers are at risk of heat stress for half the day during summer, finds UN

Migrant labourers working outdoors in Qatar face “high” or “extreme” risk of heat stress for more than half the working day during the four hottest months of the year, according to a UN report.

The findings come just weeks after the Guardian revealed that hundreds of workers may be dying due to exposure to Qatar’s intense summer heat.

Last week Human Rights Watch called on Qatar to “urgently investigate and publicise the underlying causes of migrant worker deaths”.

The UN report, which was jointly commissioned by the Qatari authorities and the International Labour Organisation (ILO), is based on data from monitoring 125 workers at two sites: a World Cup stadium and a farm.

The research found that a third of workers in the study experienced hyperthermia at some time during their shift; a serious health hazard where the body’s core temperature rises above 38C (100F).

Nicholas McGeehan, a director of Fair/Square Projects, an organisation that conducts research on Gulf migrant workers, said the report was “a damning indictment of Qatar’s failure to protect outdoor workers”.

McGeehan said that despite the report’s conclusions the ILO had played down the findings and had failed to demand urgent reforms from the Qatari authorities.

“The Qatari authorities must act on the findings of their own report. Any attempt to spin this report as evidence of good practice risks delaying government action, thereby putting more lives at risk,” he said.

Qatar imposes a ban on outdoor work between 11.30am and 3pm from mid-June to the end of August, but the UN research found that those working in the sun are at a high risk of heat stress from as early at 10am.

“I worked on a construction site for two years, and sometimes these companies don’t care,” one worker from Kenya told the Guardian. “They just say ‘go work’ in the sun … We tried to complain but they say ‘if you don’t work, you’ll get no salary, no ticket home and we won’t give you food’.”

The UN study found that on average more than 40% of workers were dehydrated by the end of their shift, a figure that rose to 74% among the farm workers. The report cited better access to drinking water as one of the most effective strategies to reduce the risk of heat stress.

Conditions were better for workers employed at the World Cup stadium site, where a number of heat mitigation measures are in place, including more freedom to take rests when workers choose. No case of heat strain had been reported at the stadium clinic since 2017, the report said.

“One of the key reasons why workers on the World Cup site were at low risk to occupational heat strain was because they were empowered to self-pace and take breaks,” said Dr Andreas Flouris, head of the FAME Laboratory, which carried out the research.

However, World Cup stadium workers make up only around 1.5% of the migrant workforce in Qatar. The rest may face conditions similar to the farm workers, who were at “moderate to high risk of heat strain”.

The report’s recommendations include changes to the summertime working hours ban, mandatory heat stress mitigation plans for all companies and annual health checkups for workers.

“We are working with the government to translate the recommendations of this study into improved legislation, and to promote the replication of the good practices that were identified,” said Houtan Homayounpour, the head of ILO in Doha.

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