Working in the Heat

It’s one thing to be hot, it’s quite another to suffer a heat illness which could be anything from fainting, exhaustion, cramps and fatigue, all the way through to life-threatening heat stroke.

Outdoor workers are particularly at risk during the summer months and are often not ready for that first burst of hot weather, accompanied by north winds, and a real shock to the system. Those who work in hot environments year round, such as foundries or glass factories, are generally well-informed, well-equipped and well-monitored.

There are cases every summer of people without adequate hydration, working too long in the beating sun, and not having access to shelter. Casual workers who may not be aware of what their work will entail on any given day are particularly at risk, such as the young man left to work on dark sheeting and not picked up until lunchtime for his break. By the time he was collected, he collapsed as soon as he hit the cool of the air-conditioned cabin.

Too darned hot

Our bodies are cooled by sweating, which then evaporates. If you are unable to meet the cooling demands of the body, that’s when you are open to a whole range of heat-related problems.

There are factors of which you should be aware, such as the air temperature, humidity, radiant heat, wind speed, the tasks being performed, the effectiveness of protective clothing, physical fitness of the individual, and pre-existing conditions such as heart disease. 

Discomfort might start with a heat rash, or prickly heat which can be mighty uncomfortable but in and of itself, not really dangerous. From there you might progress to cramps, heat exhaustion and ultimately heat stroke.

Heat exhaustion has very nasty symptoms that can include profuse sweating, weakness, nausea, vomiting, headaches and muscle spasms. Fatigue, which can present a major hazard for AWU members during summer, is all part of the equation.

Heat stroke on the other hand can be life-threatening. Sweating stops as the body temperature rises about 41 degrees Celsius, and the victim can be hit by confusion, seizures and even slip into a coma.

What can you do?

For a start, have a look at weather forecasts. Know what to expect, because even if the prediction happens to be wrong it is certainly better to be safe than sorry.

Plan to rotate workers through tasks that are particularly heat-exposed or taxing, schedule whatever you can for cooler parts of the day.

Arrange extra rest breaks and make sure that protective clothing is as light as possible while still remaining effective.

Cool drinking water should be readily available. Fizzy and caffeinated drinks are not the answer on a hot day when workers should be encouraged to drink a cup (about 200mls) of water every 15 to 20 minutes.

Good, easily understandable information and advice should be available and put into practice.

If you haven’t got a heat policy at your workplace then start talking to your AWU Organiser, Delegates and HSRs and get moving on it.  

Seek help quickly

When you see someone suffering the effects of heat, get them to a cooler area immediately. If symptoms don’t improve quickly with rest and cool drinks, or if the skin is very hot and dry to the touch, get medical attention urgently.

 

Click here to read the AWU Victorian Branch Model Clause for Construction Enterprise Agreements in relation to heat.

Click here to read SunSmart recomendations for outdoor workplace sun protection

Click here to read WorkSafe Victoria’s Guidance Note on Working in the Heat.