UK infrastructure can’t take the heat

Heat wave Ellis Fox Blog

The past week saw scorching temperatures across the UK and it wasn’t just the people feeling the heat. The UK’s aging infrastructure took a severe knock with roads blistering and railway lines buckling. In case anyone was still wondering if global warming is a myth, this should have brought home the reality. Alarmingly, the UK and Europe have experienced increasing extreme heat events in the summer months and it’s resulting in major disruptions. Infrastructure damage caused by weather events is usually considered in terms of flooding, freezing temperatures and strong winds.  The fact that it is now being caused by high summer temperatures indicates two major areas of concern:

  1. High temperatures raise health and safety risks

Historically the UK is known for its gloomy grey skies rather than scorching temperatures and most PPE in construction is designed to protect against the cold and wet weather not high temperatures. When summer temperatures soar above what we’re used to its dangerous, not only to construction workers but to drivers, machinery operators and even office workers.  Buildings in the UK are designed to keep the heat in, in cold temperatures, and are not as well equipped to keep them cool.

Some are calling for restrictions on the requirements to work in extreme temperatures, but this will take time to implement. What’s more important at this stage is for companies to be proactive in protecting the well-being of employees and maintaining a safe working environment. Ensuring adequate rest times for physical labour and sufficient access to cool drinking water are two small examples of actions that can have an impact.

  1. Infrastructure upgrades aren’t keeping pace

For centuries the UK has enjoyed relatively mild weather and infrastructure was developed with this in mind. Steel railway lines were not pretreated to prevent expansion in extreme heat because events like that happened very rarely.  Despite warnings of the likelihood of increased temperatures infrastructure upgrades have focused more on rail and road expansion and flood mitigation rather than upgrading aging infrastructure. The challenge is that the UK public is still very reliant on much of this infrastructure. When breakdowns occur it results in major disruptions.

There’s no doubt that government and companies involved in infrastructure already have their hands full trying to keep up with basic maintenance. However, climate events can’t be ignored. Will this move maintenance and upgrades to aging infrastructure further up the list of priorities?