Poor air quality, extreme weather wreaking havoc on health of Delhi's outdoor workers

Heatwaves troubled outdoor workers in Delhi more even as lack of policies besides long working hours and varied work locations exacerbated their exposure to air pollution and extreme weather condition

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Heat waves troubled outdoor workers in Delhi more than rainfall and cold waves even as lack of mitigation and policies besides long working hours and varied work locations exacerbated their exposure to air pollution and extreme weather conditions, findings of a study said on Saturday.

Three occupational groups working in Delhi - autorickshaw drivers, sweepers, and vendors - were assessed as they are regularly exposed to poor air quality and the effects of extreme weather during peak summer and winter months.

Titled 'Health impact assessment of Delhi's outdoor workers exposed to air pollution and extreme weather events: an integrated epidemiology approach' the study assessed the workers for breathing difficulties or acute lung function impairment; irregular heartbeats & chest discomfort; back, shoulder and joint pains; redness of eyes and irritation, and finally, skin rashes, headaches & overall weakness, both in winters and summers. It is published in Springer's Environment Science and Pollution Research.

The study used a detailed questionnaire in consultation with medical experts to understand their perceptions of the health effects of air pollution and extreme weather events on outdoor workers, as well as a pulmonary function test for reassurance.

While 283 people took part in the survey, 63 of them had a pulmonary function test (PFT), and statistical tools were used to analyse the impact of characteristics such as age and smoking on lung function impairment among the participants.

The lung function test results revealed that a whopping number of them - 39 per cent sweepers, 33 per cent vehicle drivers, and 27 per cent street vendors - had limited lung function. "This is linked to conditions such as systemic inflammation, pulmonary fibrosis, and interstitial lung disease. Further analysis revealed a link between pulmonary function deterioration and smoking and age. The odds ratio showed that smokers had an almost four-fold increased risk of acquiring lung disease," said Suresh Jain, the corresponding author from the Indian Institute of Technology, Tirupati, Tirupati (in Andhra Pradesh).

Health impacts of extreme weather events on outdoor workers.

As many as 75 per cent of the vendors reported headache/giddiness, 36 per cent rapid heartbeat, 20 per cent fainting/unconsciousness; for the sweepers it was 60 per cent, 34 per cent & 15 per cent, and for the autorickshaw drivers, it was 54 per cent, 27 per cent, 5 per cent.

There were fewer cases of people being impacted by symptoms during extreme cold episodes than during heatwaves. During extreme cold events, however, shivering and headache/giddiness were the most common symptoms, with shivering (19 per cent) being the most common among vendors and headache/giddiness (14 per cent) among autorickshaw drivers.


When asked about job efficiency and productivity during extreme weather events, responses from all occupational groups varied in some cases while remaining similar in others.

As many as 59 per cent autorickshaw drivers, 72 per cent vendors, and 74 per cent sweepers agreed that their job efficiency and productivity was impacted by heat waves. In case of rain, it was only 28 per cent autorickshaw drivers, 17 per cent vendors and 15 per cent sweepers that talked about its impact on them while the cold wave seems to have the least impact with only 8 per cent autorickshaw drivers, 8 per cent vendors and 4 per cent sweepers agreeing to have had an impact on their job efficiency and productivity. However, in case of extreme air pollution, only 5 per cent autorickshaw drivers, 3 per cent vendors, and 7 per cent sweepers said their productivity was impacted.

Jain added that the study found that lack of effective mitigation measures and policies, as well as lengthy working hours and varied work locations, aggravated these workers' exposure to air pollution and harsh circumstances.

The recommendations from the study - for the government authorities concerned and occupational welfare organisations - included promoting the use of safety measures and protective equipment such as respiratory masks, goggles, and other protective clothing; creating awareness among outdoor workers about the various occupational risks and health impacts and providing adequate training and capacity building to the workers regarding the use of protective measures, following preventive guidelines, as well as monitoring.

Another major recommendation was formulating local, national, and global mitigation policies and preventive guidelines.

Other authors included Vaishnavi Barthwal, Ayushi Babuta & Chubamenla Jamir from TERI School of Advanced Studies, Delhi, Arun Kumar Sharma from University College of Medical Sciences, University of Delhi, and Dr Anant Mohan from All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi.

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