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What Are the Health Implications of Heatwaves?


So far, in 2022, we have seen severe heatwaves reported in Europe, China, India, Pakistan and the USA.

As well as becoming more common, heatwaves are becoming longer, more frequent and more intense. Between 2000 and 2016, the number of people exposed to heatwaves increased by around 125 million1.

In a press release ahead of COP27, the World Health Organisation stated “The rise in global temperature that has already occurred is leading to extreme weather events that bring intense heatwaves and droughts, devastating floods and increasingly powerful hurricanes and tropical storms. The combination of these factors means the impact on human health is increasing and is likely to accelerate2".

Extreme heat can also increase the risk of other types of disasters. Hot, dry conditions can create wildfire conditions and exacerbate drought.

Heatwaves can increase the strain on health and emergency services as well as increase demand on water, energy and transportation leading to power outages. If crops and livestock are lost due to extreme heat, both incomes and supply chains can also be affected.

Extreme heat can cause a variety of health issues including heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Groups that are particularly vulnerable to heat stress include older adults, infants and children, people with chronic health conditions, and outdoor workers. Heat stroke is the most severe form of heat illness and can be fatal. It occurs when the body is no longer able to control its temperature and the body temperature rises rapidly. Immediate medical attention is required.

Cardiovascular and respiratory complications and kidney disease are also exacerbated by heat, with most heat related deaths due to cardiovascular events.

In extreme temperatures, air quality is also affected. Hot, sunny days can increase the production of ground-level ozone, the main component of smog, which can affect the respiratory system and exacerbate asthma.

Some strategies and approaches that organisations can take to support their workforce from extreme heat can include:

  • Putting in place a heatwave early warning system (communicate heat wave risks and suggest protective actions)
  • Issuing heat alerts
  • Identifying vulnerable populations and creating heat preparedness plans, that may include adopting workplace heat stress standards
  • Advising workers to stay hydrated and avoid strenuous outdoor exercise during heat alerts
  • Installing air conditioning
  • Installing cool and green roofs and cool pavements
  • Planting trees to provide shade

For information on how our Health Consulting team can support your organisation in addressing health risks, click here.