How Qatar’s New Cool-Tech Gear Helps Workers in Extreme Heat

6 minute read

This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.

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

In a city that regularly exceeds 120°F (48°C) with 70% humidity in the summer, staying cool is paramount. As global temperatures rise due to climate change, clothing designed to protect construction workers on Qatar’s sweltering World Cup projects could start showing up at worksites around the world, all thanks to a sporting event many critics suggested shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

Ever since Qatar was awarded the rights to host the World Cup in 2010, human rights organizations and the media have focused on the plight of the country’s 2 million strong migrant labor force. Tasked with building skyscrapers, roads, stadiums, and a metro line in one of the most inhospitable climates on earth, Qatar’s construction workers—recruited largely from South and Southeast Asia, and Africa—had few protections and suffered as a result. International media outlets and labor rights organizations were counting hundreds of deaths and injuries among migrant laborers every year, many due to excessive heat conditions at construction sites for various projects across the country.

Read More: What It’s Like Living in One of the Hottest Cities on Earth

Placed under the spotlight, and with pressure from the international football association FIFA, Qatar’s Ministry of Labor ramped up heat protections by banning all outdoor construction work during the hottest parts of the day during the summer. The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, the Qatari body in charge of planning and operations for the World Cup, took it a step further, seeking out technological innovations that 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 the International Labor Organization and the Supreme Committee say that only three construction workers died building World Cup Stadiums—dozens more die every year working on privately-run construction sites that don’t have such rigorous oversight.

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New research published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment projects 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 gotten a glimpse of what that will look like, making it the perfect laboratory for testing solutions now.

None of the off-the-shelf cooling products worked under Qatari conditions, says Mahmoud Qutub, the Supreme Committee’s executive director of workers’ welfare and labor rights. Cooling vests lined with ice packs were too cumbersome; high tech wicking fabric designed for Californian conditions didn’t work in Qatar’s high humidity, and high-performance athletic gear wasn’t robust enough for a construction site. “We realized that we needed to come up with something innovative that could adapt to the challenging terrain of construction in Qatar,” says Qutub.

Read More: Outdoor Workers Have Little Protection In A Warming World

In 2017, he asked the UK-based cooling clothing company Techniche to collaborate on a new solution specifically designed for Qatari construction sites. Together with scientists at Qatar’s Hamad Bin Khalifa University, Techniche developed a multi-component suit that would allow workers to mix and match cooling tech depending on their needs. The main component is a bright orange (for high visibility) mesh fabric embedded with phase change materials that absorb and hold heat away from the body, originally designed by NASA to cool astronauts. The specially designed wrist cuffs, collars, and groin-adjacent sashes and pockets can be dipped in water to chill the strategic points on the body where blood runs closest to the surface of the skin—the blue accents on Morph’s suit. Now on its fourth iteration—each design more efficient 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 internal research conducted by Techniche and Qutub’s team.

The suits aren’t designed to increase working hours as much as they are to keep workers more comfortable in high temperatures, says James Russell, Techniche’s managing director for Europe, the Middle East, and Australasia. To prevent heat stress in high temperature environments, workers still need to rest regularly, hydrate often, and stick to the shade whenever possible. And regardless of what they are wearing, outdoor workers in Qatar are required to put down their tools whenever the temperature exceeds a Global Wet Bulb Temperature of 89.7°F (32.1°C)—an index that factors together heat, humidity, and solar radiation to better assess the impact on the human body. They can only resume work once temperatures dip below that threshold—as long as it isn’t during the daytime working ban in summer.

Read More: How Heat Waves Could Have Long-Term Impacts on Your Health

The StayQool suits are “not miracle cures, but they are tools for comfort,” says Tamim Luth El Abed, the 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 under the weather a little from the heat, but you can’t always stop. Having things like this will allow you to push for another few minutes, or to walk that little extra distance to get somewhere you are going.” He wears his suit whenever he is out on a site, he says. “They really do make a difference.”

But it will be a while yet before construction sites outside of the World Cup can use Morph’s suit. The technology is still being tweaked for performance, and the ultimate goal is to embed sensors to track individual heart rates, body temperatures, and oxygen levels across an entire worksite so that workers can be taken to safety before they start exhibiting outward signs of heat stress—at which point some damage is already done. Qatar has already developed several working prototypes and plans to roll out the sensor-enhanced iteration of the StayQool suit in time for next summer.

In the meantime, after a summer of unprecedented heat waves around the world, Techniche has been inundated with requests, says Russell. “Companies with enormous workforces are sticking their hands up saying, ‘We’ve got an issue, we really need something to help fight heat stress.’ It’s gonna become a very large industry, very quickly.”

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