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Climate change takes a toll on construction workers in Hong Kong

Wong Ngai, 49, a construction worker in Hong Kong has been on the job for six years and has already got used to the physical demands and challenges of his work. But when he was assigned to install street lights next to the airport, he realised his working conditions might get even tougher.

Wong had to work in a two-metre wide space three metres underground. The lack of ventilation or fans made the air thick and stifling while the sun was beating down on him relentlessly. “Every time I go into an underground site, I immediately feel dizzy as the heat surrounds me,” said Wong.“I felt like an omelette frying under the sun.” 

Lai Chun-Lok, 33, a surveyor who has worked in the construction industry for 13 years, said heat strokes are common on construction sites. “It could get up to 40 to 50 degrees Celcisus on the rooftop. The iron is so hot that it will burn your skin if you touch it,” Lai said.

Workers taking a break outside a construction site.

The hot and humid weather in Hong Kong has been worsening over the past decade due to climate change. According to the Hong Kong Observatory, the total number of hot days has increased five times over the past two decades, reaching 55 days in 2022, and it is expected that this summer will get even hotter. 

Outdoor workers bear the brunt of climate change. The number of heat stress related work injuries has increased by 75% since 2020, according to the Labour Department’s data.

According to the document from the Human Resource Committee of the Legislative Council, the Hong Kong government plans to launch a new heat index guideline, the HKHI, in order to protect people who have to work outdoors in the summer. The heat index calculates temperature, humidity, and ultraviolet radiation from sunlight. Above a certain level, employers need to take measures such as providing more frequent break times. 

The new guidelines suggest that contractors should provide certain rest time according to the heat index. For example, when the heat index reaches 32-33 degrees Celsius, people who work outdoors such as ironworkers should suspend their work. If the heat index is equal to or higher than 34 degrees Celsius, both heavy-duty or extremely heavy-duty outdoor work should be suspended. The document also states that if the employer or person in charge takes some preventive measures to reduce heat stress, the workers’ rest time can be correspondingly reduced.

Workers wearing long sleeve clothing and sun hats to avoid sunburn.
A worker working in a confined space.
The Guidelines to outdoor workers when the HKHI reaches 30 or above.

Lam Chun-sing, 42, the Chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong and Kowloon Labor Unions, is worried that  employers may not follow the guidelines strictly. “The guideline also states that if the employer has implemented other cooling measures, such as installing a ventilation system, the break time may be reduced even if the heat index reaches a certain level,” Lam said.

Ng Hon-Lam, a Project Director at Greenpeace, suggests the government adopt an alternative method by referencing other countries to measure the temperature of construction sites. For example, in Japan, the “Prevention of Heat Stroke in the Workplace” specifies that the heat index must be measured in the workplace and use various preventive measures for heat stroke if it exceeds the standard values.

Ng holds two handheld devices that calculate the weather and temperature.

Ng added there are only two measuring sites for the heat index in Hong Kong, which are located at King’s Park in Yau Ma Tei and Beas River in Sheung Shui. The impact of heat on workers can vary greatly depending on where they work. For example, rooftop construction workers on Hong Kong Island or workers in narrow alleys may face higher heat stress levels than the Observatory’s measurements.

“While the current heat index is not bad, we can learn from Japan or the United States, where heat index instruments are installed at every worksite to provide more accurate readings of workers' working conditions,” said Ng.

《The Young Reporter》

The Young Reporter (TYR) started as a newspaper in 1969. Today, it is published across multiple media platforms and updated constantly to bring the latest news and analyses to its readers.


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