MADRID (AP) – When José Antonio González started his afternoon shift sweeping across the streets of Madrid, the temperature was 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in the middle of a heat wave that gripped Spain.
After a long time without a job, González could not afford to miss out on a one-month summer contract to sweep the city, where he lived in a working-class neighborhood. Three hours later, the 60-year-old collapsed with a heat stroke and was found lying in the street he was washing.
An ambulance took the father of two to the hospital, where he died on Saturday.
His death sparked a debate in Spain about the need to adapt work arrangements to climate change. The poorest in society, often the elderly and low-wage earners such as construction workers and courier drivers who have heat stress as a danger in the workplace, have long been identified as inferior in trying to adapt to rising temperatures.
“It is obvious that social inequality plays a role” in how much people suffer from heat waves, says Júlio Díaz from Spain’s Carlos III Health Institute.
“Tolerating a heat wave in an air-conditioned house with a swimming pool is not the same as five people in the same room with a window as the only source of fresh air,” he told Spanish public broadcaster RTVE.
The recent severe weather in Europe, which has seen an increase in the number and size of forest fires, is forcing the case to the forefront.
France has already taken some steps to alleviate heat inequality after a heat wave in 2003 caused 15,000 heat-related deaths, many of them elderly people who stayed in city apartments and pensioners without air conditioning.
Ahead of France’s latest heatwave, which set some record temperatures this week, the government reminded employers of their legal obligation to protect workers in extreme heat. It includes free drinking water, ventilation and if possible change of working hours and extra breaks.
And as Britain prepared for this week’s heatwave, which saw temperatures hit a national record of 40.3 degrees Celsius (104.5 degrees Fahrenheit) on Tuesday, unions called on the government to introduce maximum working temperatures for the first time. Many homes, small businesses and even public buildings in the UK do not have air conditioning.
Unite, the country’s largest union, is pushing for a maximum workplace temperature of 27 C (80.6 F) for “strenuous” jobs and 30 C (86 F) for sedentary jobs. The union also says that employers should be required to take steps to reduce indoor temperatures and impose strict protection on outdoor workers when the temperature reaches 24 C (75.2 F).
“As the climate changes, it is important that health and safety legislation is updated in line with the serious challenges this poses to workers,” said Rob Miguel, United’s national health and safety adviser.
In Madrid, González’s 21-year-old son, Miguel Ángel, says that his father, days before he died, had searched the internet for “how to deal with heat stroke”. The night before he died, he had come home from the cleaning guard and gasped for air.
Researchers say that exacerbation of pre-existing diseases, not heat stroke per se, is the leading cause of death associated with high temperatures.
The Carlos III Health Institute estimates that 150 deaths in Spain were somehow linked to the heat wave on the day González died. The next day, the institute attributed 169 deaths to the heat, giving a total of 679 cases in just the first week of the heat wave.
Another street sweeper in Madrid was admitted to hospital with heat stroke on Tuesday.
In places that are used to high temperatures, such as Spain’s southern Andalusia region, construction workers already work only in the morning in the summer.
Three days after González’s death, officials in Madrid agreed with working groups that street cleaners could postpone the afternoon shift and work instead in the middle of cooler evening temperatures.
Hatton contributed from Lisbon, Portugal. John Leicester in Le Pecq, France and Danica Kirka in London contributed.
Follow AP’s climate coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/climate-and-environment.