Rising temperatures: the effects of heat stress on the garment industry

Global temperatures are predicted to rise unless drastic action is taken to mitigate climate change. The physical effects of global warming are visible through rising sea levels, droughts, and fires: but a more subtle effect is taking a toll on workforces and draining productivity. 

Heat stress refers to an illness caused by exposure to extreme heat, leaving the body unable to maintain a healthy temperature. Heat stress poses a serious health risk, especially to people engaged in outdoor work, such as agriculture or construction, and factory workers. Severe cases of heat stress can lead to heatstroke, exhaustion, sickness, and fainting.  

Investing in sustainable energy practices within factories is a strategy that is “win-win” for mitigating the impact of rising outside air temperatures by supporting environmental safety, reducing operating costs and delivering improved production quality and reliability.

Labor productivity

A recent report by the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimated that heat stress will cause a 2.2% decrease in working hours, equivalent to 80 million full-time jobs, by 2030. A startling yet modest projection based on a global temperature rise of 1.5°C by 2030. This equates to a global economic loss of US$2,400 billion. In Cambodia, it is estimated that heat stress will cause a 6.5% reduction in GDP in 2030. 

The garment industry

Garment manufacturing has driven Cambodia’s industrial growth, although the sector has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic through supply chain disruptions and a drop in demand. The impacts of global warming also threaten to send shocks through the sector. The conditions in garment factories, equipped with industrial machinery and low ventilation, lead to high temperatures and ultimately heat stress.  

Heat stress threatens the health of garment factory workers, around 80% of which are women, and drives down rates of productivity. A 2019 study by the Ministry of Environment found that temperatures in the ironing department of one garment factory rose to 32-35°C which is categorized as ‘Extreme Caution’ on the heat index.

Mitigating heat stress

Adaption to heat stress can include simple measures, such as limiting work hours, increasing breaks, improving access to hydration, and wearing suitable clothing. These precautionary measures, however, also increase factory operating costs and reduce profitability.

There is another way. A best practices sustainable energy program has the benefit of reducing the amount of harmful heat emitted into factory work areas by improving the efficiency of equipment and energy systems. Old and poorly maintained equipment, like inefficient motors and leaking steam systems, contribute to heat stress in factory workspaces. Optimizing equipment efficiency and energy delivery systems decrease factory energy costs while also reducing the heat stress impact on workers and productivity from rising outdoor air temperatures.

Sustainable energy solutions

LED Lighting

Incandescent bulbs release 90% of their energy as heat and CFLs release about 80% of their energy as heat (energy.gov). Replacing factory lighting with LED bulbs will reduce the heat emitted and cut energy costs.

Efficient Boilers and Machinery

Inefficient boilers and machinery emit heat, replacing and maintaining machinery will lower temperatures and reduce energy costs.

Increase Ventilation

The design of a factory, including window placement and roofing, can trap heat in the building. Factories are often designed with poor ventilation but improving the airflow and installing fans can help to maintain a cool environment without reliance on energy-intensive air conditioning.

Renewable Energy

Transitioning to renewable energy sources, in the long term, will reduce GHG emissions and mitigate climate change and the effects of global warming.

About Switch Garment

Switch Garment promotes sustainable energy practices in the garment sector in Cambodia. Funded by the EU SWITCH-Asia Programme, the project is implemented by the Global Green Growth Institute, Geres, and the Garment Manufacturing Association in Cambodia (GMAC). Working with factories, financial institutions, government counterparts, international brands, and technology suppliers, we aim to increase the competitiveness of the Cambodian garment industry by decreasing its environmental impact.

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