We live in one of the hottest continents on the planet.

And, with climate change a reality, Australian workplaces too are getting hotter. That makes managing thermal exposure a major challenge for many employers.

Managing workplace heat is not just about workers’ comfort and productivity: Working in heat can result in illness, injuries and fatalities.

In 2012-13 there were 1,440 incidents of over exposure to heat, radiation and electricity reported in Australia1. Injuries and illnesses associated with environmental and biological factors such as thermal exposure have a higher average unit cost compared to the cost of falls, trips and body stress injuries1.

Officially, there were 14 workplace fatalities due to environmental heat in Australia between 2003 and 20132.

The contributing factors

There are many environmental and physical factors that can cause heat stress and heat related illnesses. These include:

Lack of adequate ventilation
Working in hot or confined spaces without adequate ventilation and airflow.

Can lead to heat exhaustion and heat stroke, resulting in serious, potentially irreversible damage – even death.

Sun exposure and radiant temperature
For prolonged periods of time and on hot days.

Type of clothing being worn
Ensuring you have the correct personal protective equipment (PPE) for the work you are conducting in a hot environment.

High levels of physical activity
High levels of physical activity in hot environments can lead to dehydration.

Hot and crowded conditions
Too many people working in close proximity in hot and over crowded environments.

Heat-related injuries underestimated

The impact of heat stress on accidents is often an underestimated and unrecognised factor in many workplace injuries and illnesses.

It’s been known for some time that the early stages of heat exposure often present as fatigue, tiredness and lethargy. Studies have shown impacts on short-term memory, higher error rates, and an increased risk of injury.

Heat related illness can affect anyone but those most at risk are:

  • People that are physical unwell or suffering chronic or complex health conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure or lung disease
  • Pregnant women and nursing mothers
  • People on medications which may inhibit the body’s ability to regulate temperature3

Serious physical impact

Despite its impact in workplace fatalities and injuries, the affect of heat is generally not well understood.

If asked, few people could name more than one or two of the classic five illnesses or conditions resulting from heat exposure:

Prickly heat (miliaria)
Heat rash that develops when a person sweats more than usual in hot and humid environments and sweat glands get blocked.

Heat cramps
Brief muscle cramps or spasms resulting from an electrolyte imbalance that can occur when working in hot environments.

Dizziness and Fainting (or syncope)
Light headiness and dizziness, which can lead to fainting or a brief loss of consciousness.

Heat exhaustion
Is a serious medical condition that can develop into heat stroke. It occurs after prolonged exposure to hot environments where excessive sweating has reduced blood volumes. Warning signs include sweating, prickly heat or heat rash, heat cramps, dizziness, nausea and fainting.

Heat stroke
This is a medical emergency and requires urgent attention
Heat stroke occurs through extended thermal exposure where the body’s core temperature rises above 40.5°C and your internal systems begin to shut down.

Excessive heat exposure can also have a long-term impact on the liver, kidney, heart, digestive system, skin conditions, and our central nervous system. It’s important to be aware of the risks of heat in your workplace and put the appropriate mechanisms in place to ensure the safety of your workforce.

  1. Work Safe Australia: Cost of Workplace Injury and Illness 2012-2013
  2. Work Safe Australia: Work Related Traumatic Injury Fatalities Australia 2013
  3. www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/heat-stress-and-heat-related-illness
  4. www.thethermalenvironment.com
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