We take heat lightly in Kenya. For sure, we may moan about three times the sun by 9am and adjust our days marginally to limit midday travel. But, overall, we do little to adapt to the heights of our peak temperatures.
Yet heat stress can kill, and it certainly slows down productivity. So why is it we accommodate soaring temperatures so little, and get so very hot?
As it is, we are built to withstand heat by sweating moisture that evaporates from the skin’s surface, keeping us all cooler. But that cooling requires bare skin or loose clothing. Constrained or protective clothing can interfere with our natural temperature control, and leave us overheating at the body core, which can get dangerous remarkably quickly. So clothing is key.
Yet many of our working lives are dominated by clothing from northern climes, which were never designed for heat. In the same vein, we burden staff with uniforms that don’t exactly have ‘these are good for you at temperatures over 30 degrees’ written on them.
Of course, few employers insist that staff keep on their jackets once the heat is sizzling, but for all the Kenyans working today in warehouse coats, overalls, boots, jackets and even headgear, the sum can be dangerous.
Stranger, however, than our abandonment of bare skin, or reflective white robes, or even loose fitting African wear, is our approach to the heat of the high sun.
In southern Europe, notably Spain, the days are lived around the cycle of heat. Work starts far earlier, normally at around 7am, but stops in the early afternoon for a long break when the day is at its hottest. People sleep then, and then are active until late into the night when all is cooler. It’s a pattern of living that spawned the word siesta, for that rest when the heat is at its highest.
We, by contrast, carry on with our post-colonial norm of 9 until 5, imported in a single straight line from the UK and Europe. It’s a dedication to structure (over context) that echoes that old adage about the way in which the English, generally, do not adapt to heat: ‘Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun’.
For how much respect do we show for the midday sun in our Kenyan urban lives? Are we making sense of our high-heat world?
Of course, for some, life is regulated by air conditioning. There is no overheated matatu for the boss, but an acclimatised car. There are no super-hot journeys to meetings for those who live on Skype from air-conditioned board rooms. Our so-called Grade A office buildings have been built with better air flows, natural cooling ducts, and glass that prevents direct sunlight and reflective heat.
But our older offices have not been. Many that I visit in CBD are like heat traps, often without even curtains or fans, let alone air conditioning.
The truth is we don’t have to overhaul everything to cope with heat, but Kenya’s bosses should wonder that they have done so little to lower the temperature of work.
Most shocking for me was a large school my company worked with that provided midday meals to the pupils. The headmaster explained that he arrived to find fans broken in the kitchens and temperatures regularly rising to 35 or even 40 degrees, in an area of Kenya sat in maximum heat.
It was making his staff sick, he explained, and so, rightly, he invested in cooling equipment for his kitchens. But he was an exception. The norm is to just notice you got hot getting to a meeting and never consider the huge discomfort of the workforce you have put out onto the streets today.
Yet it doesn’t achieve the best for humans anywhere to behave as if the environment around them is other than it is. For sure, we can’t just abandon 8-hour days, or close shop on the heat. But over-hot just isn’t work-wise. It fells concentration, slows output, and can set us all backwards.
So thinking of some smarter ways makes business sense: A cooler work force is a healthier workforce, and a more productive one too.