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Amidst the growing incidence of heat waves we face, many office workers across Australia are quietly grateful for the respite that temperature-controlled environments provide as they go about their workday. However, cleaners, as CAF is increasingly finding, face a different reality. When office workers pack up and go home in the late afternoon, the air conditioning powers down, and cleaners find themselves starting their shift in a structure that has been baking in the heat all day. Before long, the temperature rises and cleaners begin to feel the heat.

Workers’ rights and environmental sustainability: balancing the “E” and the “S” in ESG

The energy required to cool large buildings on hot days is front of mind for property owners, and rightly so, as they seek to reduce their environmental impacts and meet the growing expectations of tenants in this area. Environmental sustainability is reaching a level of maturity in the property services industry, with numerous certification and rating schemes recognising and rewarding industry leaders that contribute to the transition to a net zero carbon economy. A key part of these industry recognition schemes examines the amount of energy used to heat and cool these spaces. An oversight into these efforts to address greenhouse gas emissions from the built environment has been the increased risks to the cleaners who work at these buildings.

Robin Mellon, CEO of Better Sydney and Project Manager of the Property Council’s Human Rights and Modern Slavery Working Group urges supply chain stakeholders to consider the human rights and health and safety risks that are close-at-hand.

Human rights are based on principles of dignity, equality and mutual respect; about being treated fairly and treating others fairly. That means ensuring a safe working environment not just for office workers but for the cleaners who come in ‘after hours’ to vacuum, wash and wipe”, Robin says.

Human rights hazard

Safe working conditions are a key component of the CAF 3 Star Standard. Cleaners have historically suffered high rates of occupational injury relative to other workers, and our engagement with cleaners and advocacy with industry stakeholders has typically focused on issues such as unsafe workloads, lack of safety training, and inadequate supplies of personal protective equipment. Having seen considerable progress in these areas, we are now seeking to understand and address the issue of heat stress, which creates no less of an occupational health and safety risk in the industry.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has highlighted the occupational health and safety risks and productivity loss that occurs in excessive heat. Across many industries, productivity expectations that affect heat management—like the inability to slow down or take breaks—are a frequent issue. The temperature does not need to rise particularly high before productivity levels decrease: this occurs at 24–26°C, and when temperatures reach 33–34°C, a worker at a moderate work intensity loses half of their work capacity. Cleaners’ workloads are not typically reduced when they are working in uncomfortable or excessive temperatures, so the potential for heat-related injury is high.

Research from Australia identifies that the workers who are most affected by heat stress are those whose jobs are fast-paced, with inflexible schedules and little possibility of slowing down or taking additional breaks to hydrate and recover from the heat. Fatigue, headaches, loss of concentration, nausea or dizziness, and loss of appetite are all frequent symptoms reported by those who work in hot environments. Added to this, the researchers found that high heat had the effect of slowing workers’ reaction times, causing them to feel irritable or angry, and making it hard for them to concentrate. These factors create an obvious compounded safety risk when cleaners are operating machinery or using chemicals.

Bringing this issue to light through CAF Worker Engagement

Cleaners have long been the invisible occupants of office buildings, starting their shift when office workers go home. This invisible status has undoubtedly contributed to a lack of consideration for how their health and wellbeing may be affected by efforts to reduce energy consumption.

Cleaning is already physically demanding labour. Cleaners twist their bodies into uncomfortable positions as they vacuum up the dust, scrub floors, wipe surfaces, and attend to amenities, often carrying, lifting, pushing and pulling heavy pieces of equipment around the building as they go. Now consider that during the summer months, cleaners are regularly doing that for the duration of their shift in temperatures that tip well over 30 degrees.

According to CAF’s Worker Engagement Manager, Pritika Karmacharya, the cleaners she speaks to feel like they have no other choice but to complete all their duties in the normal amount of time allocated to them, even when it is unacceptably hot:

“Cleaners have to work in very uncomfortable situations, not only because the space gets hot, but because when they sweat their uniform gets all wet. When they work in the heat, they feel unwell but still complete their job”.

One cleaner at an office building told us:

The heat is trapped in the floors and there is no air circulation. You end up doing your work while sweating. Just imagine vacuuming with no air.”

According to another worker:

“The sun comes in and I feel [like] I can’t breathe. However, I know I have to finish my work, so I end up very fatigued.”

At a Queensland shopping centre, a cleaner told us that it is particularly difficult to work in heat pockets, where there is more exposure to the heat and less air ventilation and that cleaners at her workplace often feel “really dehydrated” especially because they cannot carry water bottles around when they need both hands free to do their work. These workers’ experiences of heat stress have been able to be identified through the deep engagement that CAF conducts with cleaners in collaboration with United Workers Union (UWU).

A multi-stakeholder remediation strategy

At a recent CAF assessment where cleaners raised issues relating to heat stress, we observed the building owner, the building manager, the cleaning contractor and UWU, come together to remediate the issue in a way that balances the rights of cleaners with the environmental commitments being enacted.

Some of the practical and sustainable solutions agreed to by these stakeholders at the building included having evening shifts begin earlier so that cleaners are able to complete some of their work while the air conditioning is on, setting up fans to provide air circulation, changing cleaners’ uniforms to breathable fabrics to reduce their discomfort, and ensuring that cleaners can access cooled water in all building kitchens, to prevent dehydration. Significantly, stakeholders at this site also agreed on a mechanism for cleaners to be able to request air conditioning at night in the event of high temperatures, and they agreed to monitor the temperature in various parts of the building to determine temperature patterns to inform future policy and procedure.

In this case, the building owner played a supportive role by actively participating in consultations and remaining open to proposed solutions. Their cooperation was pivotal, as their endorsement facilitated the implementation of necessary changes. The positive outcomes achieved at this site through CAF provide a model for how the broader industry can tackle this issue.

Tackling labour issues from the top down and from the bottom up

Building owners, in particular, can play a critical role in facilitating multi-stakeholder dialogue to resolve labour issues. Chris Kakoufas, Chief Investment Officer at Cbus Property remarks that:

As a long-time member of CAF, Cbus Property believes one of the most beneficial and unique features of CAF Certification is providing workers with a voice to raise issues. Then, through multi-stakeholder dialogue, we are able to design solutions that address the issue and achieve both environmental and people-oriented outcomes. Cbus Property has now obtained CAF Certification across our entire portfolio of office and shopping centre investments, something we are very proud of – but of utmost importance Knowing that we are providing safe, healthy and positive working environments where our cleaners are valued and setting a best-practice example for the wider industry.”

Worker representatives help to ensure that issues are remediated in a manner that includes the affected workers. UWU contribute significantly to the remediation process, offering practical suggestions, and ensuring direct employee feedback to the measures being proposed, how they are implemented, and their impact on the workforce. According to Rebecca Stark, Coordinator of Property Services at UWU:

Worker engagement and collaboration is critical to navigating the tension between managing environmental risk and ensuring workplace health and safety, by finding solutions that work both for the environment and for workers. Collaboration through CAF Certification has empowered cleaners to speak up about heat stress, and has facilitated a process for all stakeholders to work together to address and monitor issues.”

The issue of heat stress in the cleaning industry demands urgent attention and collaborative action. As temperatures rise and mitigation and adaptation strategies are implemented, the wellbeing of workers should remain front of mind. No-one wants to see workers collapsing from heat stress anywhere, and certainly not at prime real estate that has garnered the highest awards for sustainability. Initiatives like CAF Certification provide a practical, achievable pathway for stakeholders to agree on solutions to complex Environmental, Social and Governance risks.

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Cleaning Accountability Framework Ltd.