Heat: the hidden work safety risk
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
Sun exposure and radiant temperature
Type of clothing being worn
High levels of physical activity
Hot and crowded conditions
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)
Dizziness and Fainting (or syncope)
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.
- Work Safe Australia: Cost of Workplace Injury and Illness 2012-2013
- Work Safe Australia: Work Related Traumatic Injury Fatalities Australia 2013