What should a heat stress policy contain? How long should it be? What should it focus on?

Heat stress policies and procedures come in all shapes and sizes, but cover these nine key elements and you’ll be on the right track.

1. Training
By training your employees to recognise and mitigate the early signs of heat stress, your business can significantly reduce the productivity and cost impacts of heat-related illnesses. More importantly, equipping your employees with the most up-to-date information ensures that they can help troubled workmates in a timely fashion and potentialy limit some disasterous side effects. 

2. Water Replacement
This should be a compulsory component to any heat stress policy. Guidelines suggest workers should be drinking a small cup (~200 mL) of cool water every 20-30 minutes, even if they are not feeling thirsty.

3. Self-Pacing
Individuals can have different heat stress thresholds depending on thier unique physiology, age and health status. Workers that are older, have chronic health conditions or are prescribed medications that inhibit their ability to self-regulate temperate are at an increased risk of experiencing heat exhaustion or heatstroke.
Workers need to be allowed to pace themselves by working to the conditions and resting when their body requires it. 

4. Work Scheduling
Often the most physically intense tasks are scheduled for the hottest part of the day. Businesses should account for the season and likely work conditions when scheduling shifts, outages and maintenance – particularly in Australia’s hotter regions. We recommened scheduling the most physically intense taaks during the cooler parts of the day, e.g. early mornings or later afternoons.

5. Clothing
Contrary to popular belief, wearing long pants and sleeves in warmer weather contributes little to heat load and stress while reducing risks of cuts, abrasions, burns, and UV radiation. Regardless of clothing length, ensure workwear allows adequate airflow (i.e. via vents or using mesh materials), is of light colour (absorbs less heat) and has insulating properties (sweating is only an effective cooling mechanism if the sweat is able to evaporate off the skin).

6. Controls
Identify and where necessary adopt appropriate control measures, such as air flow, portable shade, insulating shields for radiant heat and mechanical aids (e.g. fans and air conditioners) to reduce workers’ metabolic load.

7. Acclimatisation
It can take days for new or returning workers to acclimatise to hot working conditions. Consider implementing the 20% rule - new and returning employees should initially work no more than 20% of the shift at full heat intensity. The duration of time spent working at full heat intensity should gradually be increased by 20% of the shift until the workers fully acclimatise. 

8. Assessment
Assessment refers to the periodic use of assessment tools to practically measure controls and thier effectiveness in mitigating the risks of heat-related illnesses.

9. Medical Screening and Surveillance
Individuals exposed to extreme climates should be screened for underlying medical conditions that might prevent them from working at high temperatures. Urine specific gravity monitoring can be a useful tool in some circumstances.

Heat can impact heavily on the health and productivity of any workforce. Whatever form your heat stress policy takes, it’s an essential first step in ensuring this potential killer is managed and controlled effectively.

Dr Ross Di Corleto
Occupational Hygienist, Adjunct Associate Professor

Dr Ross Di Corleto is a noted Australian authority on the impact of heat in the workplace. He is a member of the Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists (AIOH), he co-authored the AIOH booklet, ‘Documentation of the Heat Stress guide Developed for Use in the Australian Environment’.

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