Working in heat
Working in heat can be hazardous, causing severe health problems for workers. Comcare provides guidance for employers and workers on preventing heat-related illness and being safe and healthy in the workplace.
For many employers, working in heat is a seasonal hazard. Heat poses a direct risk to a worker’s health and safety and may cause heat-related illness. A preventative approach must be taken to protect workers from heat hazards and harm.
Employers should prepare and plan early for hotter weather conditions by undertaking or reviewing risk assessments and safety controls.
Employer risk assessments should not be ‘set and forget’. Australia's hot and dry weather conditions highlight the need to reassess the adequacy of measures to protect workers from heat and other environmental hazards (such as bushfires and smoke, floods and storms).
It’s important that employers monitor and respond to changing conditions and extreme weather events to maintain the health and safety of their workforce.
Employers can use the heat stress calculator to assess conditions and inform their actions to control risks.
Working in heat can be hazardous and can result in severe health problems for workers.
Workers who are required to work in the heat, be it outdoor or indoor work, have an increased risk of heat-related illness.
Heat-related illness can result from working in hot and/or humid temperatures and/or being exposed to high levels of sun.
When work must be undertaken outside in hot or humid conditions there is always a risk of heat-related illness.
In the Comcare jurisdiction, workers at an increased risk include those working in the military, construction, deliveries and distribution services.
Heat, such as steam, can also be generated from machinery and other thermal heat sources found inside foundries, commercial kitchens and laundries. Poor airflow or ventilation in warehouses, labs and other indoor spaces can also create a heat hazard.
Working in a hot environment - whether indoor or outdoor - can contribute to, or cause, other serious health and safety injuries. The hot environment may cause workers to become fatigued, physically weak, have slower reaction times or poor judgement.
Signs of heat-related illness
Heat-related illness is a general term used to describe a range of progressive heat-related conditions including dehydration, fainting, heat rash, heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
Working in heat can be hazardous and can cause harm to workers. The human body needs to maintain a body temperature of approximately 37 degrees Celcius. If the body has to work too hard to keep cool or starts to overheat, this can lead to heat-related illness.
Some people are at greater risk of suffering heat-related illness than others. Usually a person doesn’t realise they may be suffering from a heat-related illness. There are however warning signs that you need to look out for.
If you recognise one or more of these symptoms when working in heat, take preventive action and seek first aid early:
- feeling hot, weak and fatigued
- dizziness (particularly when standing)
- loss of concentration, poor judgement, irritability
- clumsiness, slower reaction times
- overly thirsty, dark yellow urine
- nausea and vomiting
- rapid breathing and breathlessness
- clammy skin, overly sweaty
- fast, weak pulse rate, palpitations
- tingling, numbness of fingers and/or toes
- visual disturbance
- difficulty speaking or slurred speech
- seizures and unconsciousness (in extreme cases).
If you notice a worker showing any of these symptoms, or a worker notifies you or another worker that they are experiencing any of these symptoms, they need to immediately:
- be moved to a cool place that has circulating air
- have all tight clothing loosened and unnecessary garments removed, including personal protective equipment
- drink frequent, small amounts of cool water
- seek immediate medical advice if their symptoms don’t improve.
The most serious type of heat-related illness is heat stroke.
Heat stroke is a medical emergency. There have been instances where heat stroke has caused fatalities.
One or more symptoms of heat stroke are:
- rapid pulse, has difficulty breathing
- headache, dizziness, or visual disturbances
- nausea, vomiting, cramps, stops sweating
- clumsy, is disorientated, irritable or acts confused
- faints, has a seizure, is unconscious
- stopped breathing or no pulse.
If you or a worker suspect heat stroke, call Triple 000 and request an ambulance immediately.
See Safe Work Australia’s advice and guidance on providing first aid to someone experiencing a heat-related illness.
WHS duties for workers
How workers can prevent heat-related illness
Working in heat can be hazardous and can cause harm to workers. There are several things workers can do to reduce the likelihood of getting a heat-related illness when working in a hot environment.
Practical tips for workers to prevent heat-related illness:
- Ensure you are well hydrated before you commence work and are fit for work.
- Eat regular meals and snacks to help replace salt and electrolytes lost through heat.
- Notify your employer if you have a medical condition that may increase your susceptibility to heat-related illness such as heart disease, high blood pressure, pregnancy, respiratory disease and diabetes. In addition, workers with some types of skin diseases and rashes may be more susceptible to heat.
- Follow your employer’s instructions and comply with any safety requirement that protects you from exposure to heat such as wearing specialised cooling and/or personal protective clothing.
- If working outdoors, always wear a hat, sunglasses, and apply sunblock regularly.
- Take regular breaks to cool down and seek shelter in air conditioned or well-ventilated environments where possible.
- Drink enough water while working to maintain fluid replacement – at least a small cup (200ml) of cool water every 15 – 20 minutes.
- Avoid soft drinks, caffeine or alcohol as these can dehydrate you very quickly.
- If working outside without access to an air conditioned or cool rest area, carry your water and drinks in a portable esky with ice. Dip a small towel into the icy water and apply on your skin, back of neck and face when needed.
- Be self-aware of the signs and symptoms of heat-related illness. If you think you may be affected, speak up and ask for help, first aid or medical assistance.
- Keep an eye on your work colleagues for signs of heat-related illness. If they feel dizzy, nauseous, are excessively thirsty, have difficulty speaking or are acting confused, seek first aid help immediately.
- Report all hazards and workplace incidents to your employer, as this may prevent and stop other workers from being harmed at work.
- If you have any concerns, report it to your supervisor or a Health and Safety Representative.
WHS duties for employers
Working in heat can be hazardous and can cause harm to workers. Employers have the primary duty of care to ensure the health and safety of workers and others in the workplace, so far as is reasonably practicable.
If there is more than one business or undertaking at your workplace, you must consult each one to find out who is doing what and work together so that risks are eliminated or minimised, so far as is reasonably practicable.
Heat-related illness can result from working in hot environments, being exposed to high levels of humidity or thermal heat, and heat and/or steam generated from machinery or equipment.
Managing workplace risks
If risks from heat are not controlled in the workplace, workers can experience a heat-related illness, permanent disability or even death.
When working in hot environments, workers must be able to carry out work without risk to their health and safety, so far as is reasonably practicable.
Employers need to be aware that the way heat affects workers will vary from person to person and may influenced by:
- general health
- body weight (being overweight or obese can make it more difficult to cope with heat)
- age (in particular, workers over the age of 55 experience a lower ability to work in hot environments and workers under the age of 25 may be more susceptible to heat-related illness)
- level of fitness
- certain prescription drugs
- illicit drug use
- certain medical conditions such as heart or lung disease, and diabetes.
Employers must consult with workers and Health and Safety Representatives (HSR) (if any) and take a risk management approach to prevent heat-related illness.
The risk management approach includes:
- Identifying the hazard – find out what could cause harm.
- Assessing the risks – understand the nature of the harm that could be caused by the hazard, how serious the harm could be and the likelihood of it happening.
- Controlling the risks - implement the most effective control measure that is reasonably practicable in the circumstances and ensure it remains effective.
- Regularly reviewing control measures to test effectiveness and ensure they are working as planned.
If exposure to heat is identified as a risk, employers should conduct a risk assessment in consultation with workers and/or their HSRs (if any).
A risk assessment must consider the environmental factors such as air temperature, humidity, amount of air movement and radiant temperature of the surroundings as well as personal factors of the workers, such as clothing, work, physical activity being done and their physical fitness. It must also consider tasks that involve working with hot materials and jobs that must be done quickly.
Employers also have a duty to provide first aid equipment and facilities, and access to trained first aid officers, for sick or injured workers.
You need to notify Comcare of any serious incidents, see Responding to an Incident information page.
Refer to Safe Work Australia’s Guide for managing the risks of working in heat for more information on a risk management approach to preventing heat-related illness. A Working in Heat factsheet is also available.
WorkSafe Queensland provides more detailed information on identifying and assessing heat stress risks, including a basic heat stress calculator, technical assessment and physiological monitoring.
The Bureau of Meteorology has developed a Heatwave Service which provides information on heatwave forecasts and assessment maps to better prepare for heatwave conditions and their impacts.
How employers can prevent heat-related illness
Practical tips for employers, managers and/or supervisors to prevent heat-related illness include:
- Consult and communicate with workers regularly to identify and assess heat-related risks, and gain feedback on the effectiveness of control measures.
- Where possible, don’t allow workers to work alone.
- Erect shade, shelter, or provide access to air-conditioning or battery-operated fans, while working outside and for rest breaks.
- When working indoors and air-conditioning is not available, ensure there is ventilation by using fans or if safe, opening windows and doors to allow for good airflow.
- Protect workers from thermal heat generated from using machinery indoors, preferably through use of insulation and/or remote-controlled operations. Mechanical or natural ventilation, exhaust or extraction fans, or artificial cooling are other options.
- Use mechanical aids or machinery to reduce physical exertion or workloads where possible.
- Know your workforce and plan ahead – for example, know and monitor the weather forecast and implement practical measures to help workers safely acclimatise to hot and/or humid weather.
- Make modifications to the work schedule or process if possible, such as starting earlier or later in the day to avoid the heat, job sharing or consider moving work indoors until safe.
- Where possible look to alternative tasks which can be done in cooler, shaded areas of the workplace.
- Ensure workers can take frequent rest breaks when working in heat to hydrate and assist cool down.
- Provide easy access to cool drinking water to assist hydration and ice-based drinks to lower worker core body temperature. Soft drinks, caffeine and alcohol should be avoided.
- Reduce worker exposure to the sun by requiring the use of hats, sunglasses and sunscreen when working outdoors
- Rotate workers so that no one is spending too long in the sun, especially during the hottest part of the day.
- Educate workers on working in heat to ensure they can identify heat risk situations, recognise personal factors that increase risk, understand how to minimise heat risk hazards and recognise the signs and symptoms of heat-related illness.
- Ensure workers know how to contact the first aid officer and/or location of the first aid kits and how to seek medical assistance quickly if needed.
- Provide a workplace where workers feel safe and comfortable to raise and respond to safety risks, seek help, and discuss heat-related risks with their employer.
Managing the risks of solar ultraviolet radiation
Exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation (UVR) is a risk for anyone who works outside. Solar UVR is not only a hazard when working in direct sunlight, it can also be reflected off certain materials, such as concrete, metal, snow and sand. Employers must do everything that is reasonably practicable to eliminate the risks associated with workplace solar UVR exposure.
This fact sheet from Safe Work Australia provides an overview of solar UVR and how to manage the risks in the workplace.
Notify Comcare of an incident
The employer has statutory obligations to notify Comcare of serious incidents at work under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011.
An incident is notifiable if it results from the conduct of a business or undertaking, and causes:
- the death of a person
- serious injury or serious illness of a person
- a dangerous incident.
For more, see Comcare’s Responding to an Incident information page.