How Qatar's new Cool-Tech equipment is helping workers in extreme heat

This story was sponsored by Pulitzer Center.

The unofficial mascot of the construction team behind the upcoming Qatar Men’s FIFA World Cup is a faceless male mannequin named Morph. From his balaclava to his heavy work boots, Morph is dressed in an eye-watering shade of bright orange. His unusual suit, highlighted by a blue collar, blue cuffs and a blue sash, is Doha the latest weapon in the country’s ongoing battle against the heat.

In a city that regularly exceeds 120°F (48°C) with 70% humidity in the summer, coolness is paramount. As global temperatures rise due to climate changeclothing designed to protect construction workers on Qatar’s hot World Cup projects could start showing up on job sites around the world, all thanks to a sporting event that many critics suggest should never have happened in the first place place.

Since how Qatar won the rights to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup, rights groups and the media have focused on the plight of the country’s 2 million migrant workforce. Tasked with building skyscrapers, roads, stadiums and a metro line in one of the most inhospitable climates on earth, Qatar’s construction workers – recruited mostly from South and Southeast Asia and Africa – lacked much protection and suffered as a result. International media and labor rights organizations count hundreds of deaths and injuries among migrant workers each year, many of them due to excessive heat conditions on construction sites for various projects throughout the country.

Read more: What it’s like to live in one of the hottest cities on Earth

In the spotlight and under pressure from international soccer association FIFA, Qatar’s Ministry of Labor has stepped up heat protection by banning all outdoor construction work during the hottest parts of the day in summer. The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, the Qatari body responsible for planning and operations for the World Cup, has gone a step further by seeking technological innovations this would allow workers to stay cool, or at least cooler, as they rushed to finish the stadiums during the hottest time of the year.

Both International Labor Organization and the Supreme Committee says only three construction workers have died building World Cup stadiums – dozens more die each year working on private construction sites that lack such strict oversight.

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New research published in the journal Communications Earth and Environment predicts that by 2050, deadly heat waves are likely to become a common natural phenomenon in many parts of the world, putting outdoor workers at increased risk. As one of the hottest countries in the world, Qatar has already been able to see what this will look like, making it the perfect laboratory to test solutions now.

None of the off-the-shelf cooling products worked under Qatari conditions, he claimed Mahmoud Qutb, executive director of the Supreme Committee for Workers’ Welfare and Labor Rights. Cooling vests lined with ice packs were too cumbersome; high-tech absorbent material designed for Californian conditions didn’t work in Qatar’s high humidity, and high-performance sports gear wasn’t tough enough for a construction site. “We realized that we had to come up with something innovative that could adapt to the challenging construction terrain in Qatar,” Qutub says.

Read more: Outdoor workers don’t have much protection in a warming world

In 2017, he asked the UK-based cooling clothing company Technical to collaborate on a new solution specifically designed for construction sites in Qatar. Together with scientists from Qatar Hamad Bin Khalifa University, Techniche has developed a multi-component suit that will allow workers to mix and match cooling technologies depending on their needs. The main component is a bright orange (high visibility) mesh fabric embedded with phase change materials that absorb and retain heat away from the body, originally designed by NASA to cool the astronauts. Specially designed wrist cuffs, collars and adjacent groin belts and pockets can be submerged in water to cool strategic points on the body where blood flows closest to the surface of the skin – the blue accents on the Morph suit. Now in its fourth iteration—each design more effective than the last—55,000 StayQool suits have been distributed to World Cup construction workers, reducing surface skin temperatures by 10 to 14°F (6-8°C), according to an internal study , conducted by the Techniche and Qutub Team.

The suits are not designed to extend working hours so much as to keep workers more comfortable in high temperatures, says James Russell, Techniche’s managing director for Europe, the Middle East and Australia. To prevent heat stress in high-temperature environments, workers should rest regularly, hydrate frequently, and stay in the shade whenever possible. And regardless of what they’re wearing, outdoor workers in Qatar are required to put down their tools when the temperature exceeds the global wet bulb temperature of 89.7°F (32.1°C) — an index that takes into account heat, humidity and solar radiation to better assess the impact on the human body. They can only resume operations once temperatures drop below that threshold – as long as it’s not during the summer daylight hours.

Read more: How heat waves can have long-term effects on your health

The StayQool suits “are not miracle cures, but comfort tools,” says Tamim Lout El Abed, project manager for Lusail Stadium, where the final match will be held. “You’re a carpenter or an electrician, you start a task, you start to feel a little under the weather from the heat, but you can’t always stop. Having things like this will allow you to push on for a few more minutes or walk that little extra distance to get somewhere you’re going. He wears his suit whenever he’s on location, he says. “They really do make a difference.”

But it will be a while before construction sites outside of the World Cup can use the Morph suit. The technology is still evolving for efficiency, and the ultimate goal is to embed sensors to track individual heart rates, body temperatures and oxygen levels throughout the workplace so workers can be led to safety before they start to show outward signs of heat stress—at which point some damage is already done. Qatar has already developed several working prototypes and plans to launch a sensor-enhanced iteration of the StayQool suit in time for next summer.

Meanwhile, after the summer of unprecedented heat waves Worldwide, Techniche is inundated with requests, says Russell. “Companies with huge workforces are throwing their hands up saying, ‘We’ve got a problem, we really need something to help combat heat stress.'” It’s going to become a very big industry, very quickly.

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