During one of the most extreme heat waves Europe has had this summer, executives in suits raced from taxis into the air-conditioned offices of Milan, while tourists sipped mimosas under clouds of cooling steam in the Bar at Ralph Lauren. Lowered curtains behind iron balconies signaled that residents had left for their vacation homes.
Under the darkened windows, delivery riders cycled under the sun to transport sushi and poke bowls to office buildings. Elsewhere in Milan, on the burning tarmac of the airport, sweat-drenched baggage handlers unloaded luggage from planes. And along the highway that connects Milan to the coast, workers wore safety vests over bare, sunburned chests as they carried buckets of concrete in the searing heat.
Temperatures in southern Europe climbed past 40 degrees Celsius, or 104 Fahrenheit, with higher figures expected on Wednesday. While everyone felt the scorching weather, the heatwave also highlighted a deep divide – between those who can afford to shelter from it and those who can’t.
The extreme weather events that have become more frequent and intense under climate change have exposed, as has the coronavirus pandemic, the increased dangers faced by the sick, the elderly and the poor, with often overlooked workers most at risk.
Last week, a street worker collapsed while working at a site near Milan and later died in hospital. On the outskirts of Florence, a cleaner collapsed in a warehouse and died soon after. Both deaths are still under investigation to determine the cause, but they have reignited concerns about the lethality of the current heat wave.
Heat waves across Europe killed more than 61,000 people last summer, according to a recent study. While a breakdown of deaths was not available for the last year, experts said that in a 2003 heat wave that killed up to 70,000 people, most of those who died were poor.
“Most of the time, you have headaches because of the heat,” said Naveed Khan, 39, a food cyclist, before he plunged into Milan traffic. He takes painkillers every other day, he said, to deal with the discomfort, but can’t stop working. “I don’t have another job,” he said.
Mr. Khan, 39, has a wife and two children who depend on him. “If you have a proper job, you can take a break in the heat,” he said. “If I rest, what will they eat?”
According to several studiesthe workers who are most exposed to heat and sunlight are the most vulnerable.
“Heat waves don’t affect everyone in the same way,” said Claudia Narocki, a sociologist who wrote a 2021 report on the impact of heat waves on workers for the European Trade Union Institute, a research institute. “Paradoxically, the most exposed jobs are the worst paid.”
Immigrants, self-employed workers and those paid by the piece are most at risk for dehydration and overexposure to heat, the European Trade Union Institute report noted, although few realize how many people are at risk.
“Last year the a debate it was about what temperature it should be in air-conditioned offices,” said Ms. Narocki. “But there’s a whole world outside the air-conditioned places.”
This was on full display in Milan, where the maitre d’ at the Ralph Lauren bar said many regulars had gone on vacation, and cold blasts from luxury stores briefly refreshed those who couldn’t afford a break.
Luxury carmaker Lexus has planned a car wash event to promote a new SUV at Palazzo Bovara in downtown Milan, billing it as a “regenerative” space for guests to “relax and escape the summer heat of the city.”
Not so for those who had to sew a massive plastic sheet to scaffolding for the event under the sun at 2pm. Workers were dripping with sweat as they balanced on metal ladders outside the palace.
“It’s deadly,” said Marco Croci, who managed the construction effort. “But we have to do it. It is an event, and the event will happen anyway.”
Simon N’doli works washing cars, through an application that allows customers to hire a washer wherever they want. On Sunday, in heat that reached 94 Fahrenheit, he could be found wiping a white Tesla parked in the blazing sun, in front of a bistro. Mr. N’doli called the owner to request that the car be moved into the shade, but was told that the owner had already left for the gym.
“Sometimes you wonder — it’s not normal that you work in this kind of situation,” said Mr N’doli, 40. “That maybe you deserve better.”
He said he had worked every day but one for the past month. Sometimes, his whole body ached when he returned home after bending over cars in the heat. The disparities bothered him, he said.
“Why are there people who are in offices now?” he asked, looking at the tall buildings around him. “There is some inequality, some injustice.”
When the owner of the car returned, he asked Mr. N’doli to put a “premium” product on his tires. Mr. N’doli started wiping again.
The recent deaths of the two workers have prompted scrutiny of whether they could have been prevented. Unions said companies should suspend business if the heat becomes too dangerous, and that they should provide workers with water and a fresh place to rest.
Italian health officials have recommended that workers take frequent breaks, and that shifts be moved to parts of the day when the heat is less intense.
In the wine-making region of Franciacorta east of Milan, workers in one vineyard adopted a modified schedule, from 6 am to 2 pm, to avoid the hottest hours.
On one afternoon, when temperatures hit 104, Krenar Osmani’s T-shirt was glued to his body with sweat as he pruned the vines that yield sparkling wine.
“You take a few leaves, but not too many, so as not to burn the grapes,” he said as the sun hit his dark red neck and forearms. “After a while, the grapes burn in this sun.”
For many in the lowest-paid jobs, it’s hard to find relief even when the workday is over.
“Can’t afford AC,” said Salvatore Raccuià, 55, a steelworker, as he sat in the shade of a cafe near his home in Milan’s Giambellino neighborhood. Many of the public apartment buildings there are decades old, and residents compare them to “ovens” in the summer. One retired trucker said he coped by filling his bathtub with ice-cold water.
For one resident, the biggest concern was that he soon might not have any shelter from the heat.
Alin Andronache, who is unemployed, recently received a letter from the housing authority, saying that he must leave the apartment in which he and his wife live, because they illegally occupied it. Mr Andronache, 48, who has diabetes and a heart condition, has spent the past few scorching days packing his clothes, expecting an imminent visit from the police.
“What will happen to us on the street in this heat?” asked his wife, Irina Nicolae, who was worried about her husband’s health.
“What happens if a person dies?”