The business of heat: B.C. heat wave presents health, productivity risks to people working from home

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A health expert is warning that the unprecedented heat wave seen in Metro Vancouver and throughout B.C. this week may pose productivity hindrances – if not outright health hazards – for the large number of people working from home.

Kate Weinberger, assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health, has expressed concerns about a number of issues facing people spending time in their homes – including items such as windows that do not open sufficiently to allow cooler air to enter homes at night.

Given that the mass majority of B.C. homes do not have air conditioning, this week’s heat wave reaching and surpassing 40 C in some instances could have major implications for people working from home, Weinberger said.

She added that – with the concern that climate change is pushing global temperatures higher – this heat wave may be a precursor of what’s to come in future years.

“The heat wave we are currently experiencing in Vancouver is a severe event that poses serious risks to our health,” she said. “As temperatures continue to rise, we can expect to experience heat waves that are hotter, longer and more frequent.”

A BC Hydro report from last August said air conditioning use in the province has skyrocketed in the last two decades, more than tripling the figure recorded in 2001 to reach 34% in 2020. (That number is significantly higher in the Southern Interior, where that percentage rises to 72%.)

About 80% of the respondents said last year that they planned on spending more on air conditioning given they are planning to spend more time at home. According to that poll, about 20% of those without air conditioners in their homes were considering adding one.

That, however, still leaves the majority of B.C. homes without air conditioning. It is a major concern for Weinberger, who said people working from home need to take every precaution right now to stay safe and productive.

“The temperatures we are currently experiencing in Vancouver can be dangerous, especially for those who don’t have access to a cool space to live or work in,” she said. “This includes people who are working from home in an environment they can’t keep cool.

“I'd recommend that people who are working from home familiarize themselves with the symptoms of heat-related illness, try to make their indoor environment as cool as possible, and check in with family, friends, and colleagues to make sure they are staying cool and hydrated.”

Temperatures exceeded 40 C in some parts of the Lower Mainland both yesterday and today – and are expected to reach 42 C by end-of-day. The average June high temperature in the city is 20 degrees. Humidex readings are forecasted to reach close to 50 degrees in some Fraser Valley locations like Abbotsford.

As of 3 p.m., Coquitlam, Nanaimo and Kelowna are at 41 C, while Kamloops’s temperature has exceeded 43 C.