Queensland is the self-proclaimed “Sunshine State” of Australia. Queensland’s summer heatwaves pose a unique set of challenges to employers whose workers are exposed to heat in the course of their duties. Workers in construction, agriculture and outdoor tourism are particularly at risk of heat-related illnesses from overexposure to the sun.
Employers have an obligation to provide their workers with a safe place of work. This includes providing a work environment where the risks associated with heat exposure are appropriately assessed and managed (if those risks cannot be eliminated).
What Are The Risks of Working In The Heat?
There are a variety of factors which can contribute to heat-related illnesses. Common factors include:
- Strenuous manual work performed outdoors in moderately hot and/or humid conditions;
- Wearing particularly heavy personal protective equipment (PPE), such as that made from non-breathable materials;
- Exposure to radiant heat from working in the vicinity of hot machinery (e.g. ovens, furnaces, welding equipment).
The degree of risk associated with each of these heat-related factors varies depending on the individual worker’s condition of health.
Physical Impacts (Health Risks)
It is particularly important that you and your workers have the ability to distinguish between the following:
- when a worker is exhibiting normal symptoms of heat exposure and discomfort in performing their duties; or
- when a worker is suffering from heat strain.
Signs of mild heat-strain include:
- Heat rashes
- Flushed skin
- Increased sweating
- Muscle cramps
- Dizziness or weakness
- Reduce concentration; and
Without the proper preventative measures in place, a worker may even experience heat stroke which can be fatal. It is therefore vital that you as an employer are proactive in managing the risks associated with heat exposure.
How Do I Manage The Risks As An Employer?
Limiting your worker’s exposure to heat may include modifying the work environment to suit the work, or modifying the work to suit the environment.
Modifying the work environment to suit the work requires an evaluation of the heat source, and whether this can be altered, e.g.
- Introducing ventilation and fans to actively cool down the work environment
- Insulating and/or isolating hot plant and equipment; or
- Installing shade cloths or barriers to prevent sun exposure.
Modifying the work to suit the environment involves some greater initiative in designing work practices and creating policies to minimise the risks. Examples include:
- Providing appropriate PPE to outdoor workers, (including a wide brim hat, loose fitting clothing, sunglasses and sunscreen)
- Providing additional rest breaks; or
- Worker or task rotation to reduce a worker’s exposure to heat.
Providing cool drinking water that is easily accessible to workers is another very simple risk management strategy.
You may also consider modifying what work is to be performed at what times of the day. However, this is not always the most practical option (such as in construction) and should not be relied upon as the sole means of managing heat-related illnesses in the workplace.
A combination of the above controls may be the most effective way to manage risks in the workplace.
Workplace Health and Safety Queensland has developed a number of resources to educate and assist employers around the risks of working in heat. Two great resources include the Heat Stress Basic Calculator, which can be used to assess the risks unique to your workplace, and the Pre-start Checklist created by the American Industrial Hygiene Association
Still Have Questions?
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Article prepared by Emma Tunn and Olivia Yarrow