Drinking stations and temperature gauges could become the workplace norm as employers find new ways to protect outdoor workers from a changing climate.
New research, launched today, has found Australian workers put their health at risk by overestimating their capacity to work in the heat.
The majority of the 500 workers recruited to the nation-wide study believed they could function normally in temperatures five to 10 degrees hotter than they actually can.
Australian National University heat expert Dr Liz Hanna says it means workers, including farmers, builders and people working in essential services such as paramedics and district nurses, begin to suffer headaches and fatigue at temperatures they thought it was okay to keep working normally in.
“Self-assessment of heat coping capacity is not reliable,” Dr Hanna said.
“People think it’s only elderly people, children and those who are already ill that are at risk of heat stress, but the young and fit are also in danger largely because they’re more likely to take risks and fail to recognise early symptoms.”
The cross-industry study also found only 20 per cent of workers show up to work fully hydrated.
“Greater levels of dehydration resulted in worsening of symptoms, and greater productivity losses,” Dr Hanna said.
The ACTU’s Assistant Secretary Michael Borowick says employers must do more to ensure their staff are adequately protected from the heat.
“There are no regulations specifying standards for maximum temperatures in the workplace yet the number of record hot days in Australia has doubled in the last 50 years and climate change is increasing the frequency and duration of heatwaves,” Mr Borowick said.
“Heat exposure has a significant effect on the physical and mental health of the Australian workforce, as well as limiting its productivity.”
In one horrific case, a 17-year-old apprentice was hospitalised in December after working outside during a heatwave in Adelaide.
SA secretary of the CFMEU Aaron Cartledge says the boy, who only recently returned to work, has to deal with ongoing medial issues.
“A lot of people don’t understand the damage you are doing to your body, it’s underrated as a health and safety issue on sites,” Mr Cartledge said.
Dr Hanna says measures to increase worker safety include:
- Installing drinking stations on site
- Monitoring temperatures at worksites
- Consider installing air-conditioning and fans in workplaces, or changing timing of strenuous exercise to avoid working in the hottest parts of the day
“In the long-term, working to limit carbon emissions will go a long way towards protecting the health of workers across the country,” Dr Hanna said.