During one of the most extreme heat waves Europe has had this summer, executives in suits dashed from cabs into Milan’s air-conditioned offices, while tourists sipped mimosas under clouds of cooling vapor in the Bar at Ralph Lauren. Lowered blinds behind iron balconies signaled that residents had departed for their vacation homes.
Below the darkened windows, delivery riders cycled under the sun to shuttle sushi and poke bowls to office buildings. Elsewhere in Milan, on the airport’s incendiary tarmac, baggage handlers drenched in sweat unloaded luggage from planes. And along the highway that connects Milan to the seaside, laborers wore safety vests on bare, sunburned chests as they lugged buckets of concrete in the scorching heat.
Temperatures in southern Europe have climbed past 40 degrees Celsius, or 104 Fahrenheit, with higher figures expected on Wednesday. While everyone was feeling the scorching weather, the heat wave has also highlighted a deep divide — between those who can afford to shelter from it, and those who cannot.
The extreme weather events that have become more common and intense under climate change have exposed, just as the coronavirus pandemic did, the increased dangers faced by the sick, the old and the poorer, with often-overlooked workers the most at risk.
Last week, a street worker collapsed as he was working at a site near Milan and later died in a hospital. In the outskirts of Florence, a cleaner collapsed in a warehouse and died shortly after. Both deaths are still under investigation to determine the cause, but they have revived worries 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 on deaths was not available for last year, experts said that in a 2003 heat wave that killed up to 70,000 people, most who died were low-income.
“Most of the time, you have headaches because of the heat,” Naveed Khan, 39, a food delivery cyclist, said before he dove into the Milan traffic. He takes painkillers every other day, he said, to handle the discomfort, but can’t stop working. “I don’t have any other job,” he said.
Mr. Khan, 39, has a wife and two children who rely on him. “If you have a proper job, you can take a break in the heat,” he said. “If I take a break, what will they eat?”
According to several studies, the workers that are most exposed to heat and sunlight are the most vulnerable.
“Heat waves don’t affect everybody 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 paid the worst.”
Immigrants, self-employed workers and those paid piecemeal are most at risk for dehydration and overexposure to heat, the report from the European Trade Union Institute noted, though few realize how many people are at risk.
“Last year the debate was on what the temperature should be in air-conditioned offices,” Ms. Narocki said. “But there is a whole world outside the air-conditioned places.”
That was on full display in Milan, where the maitre d’ at the Ralph Lauren bar said many regulars had gone on vacation, and cold gusts of air blowing out of luxury stores briefly refreshed those who could not afford to take a break.
The luxury carmaker Lexus was planning a carwash-themed event to promote a new SUV in Palazzo Bovara in Milan’s city center, billing it as a “regenerating” space for guests to “relax and evade the city’s summer heat.”
Not so for those who had to stitch a massive plastic tarp to a scaffolding for the event under the 2 p.m. sun. Workers dripped with sweat as they balanced on metal ladders outside the palazzo.
“It’s lethal,” said Marco Croci, who managed the construction effort. “But we have to do it. It’s an event, and the event will happen anyway.”
Simon N’doli works washing cars, via an app that lets customers hire a washer wherever they want. On Sunday, in heat that reached 94 Fahrenheit, he could be found wiping down a white Tesla parked in blazing sun, in front of a bistro. Mr. N’doli had called the owner to ask that the car be moved into the shade, but was told 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 in the past month. Sometimes, his whole body ached when he returned home after bending around cars in the heat. The disparities nagged at him, he said.
“Why are there people who are in offices right now?” he asked, looking at the tall buildings around him. “There is some inequality, some injustice.”
When the car’s owner 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 set off scrutiny over whether they could have been prevented. Unions said that companies should pause business if the heat becomes too dangerous, and that they must provide workers water and a fresh place to rest.
Italian health officials recommended that workers take frequent breaks, and that shifts be moved to parts of the day when the heat is less intense.
In the winemaking region of Franciacorta east of Milan, workers in one vineyard have adopted a modified schedule, from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., to avoid the hottest hours.
In one afternoon, as 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 some 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 lower-paying jobs, it is hard to find relief even when the workday is over.
“Can’t afford an A.C.,” 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 liken them to “furnaces” in the summer. One retired freight handler said he coped by filling his bathtub with ice-cold water.
For one resident, the biggest concern was that he soon may not have any shelter from the heat.
Alin Andronache, who is unemployed, recently received a letter from the housing authority, saying he must leave the apartment he and his wife live in because they had illegally occupied it. Mr. Andronache, 48, who has diabetes and a heart condition, spent the past few scorching days packing up his clothes, expecting a visit soon by the police.
“What will happen to us on the street with this heat?” asked his wife, Irina Nicolae, who worried about her husband’s health.
“What happens if a person dies?”