Regulators sound caution over summer heat and worker safety

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Sunday, 8 January, 2023 - 12:15
Industry news
National News

WHS regulators in Queensland and the Northern Territory recently issued warnings about high temperatures over the summer and reminded employers about their obligation to protect workers from heat-related illness under work health and safety laws.

With temperatures recently peaking at more than 40 degrees in parts of Queensland, Minister for Industrial Relations Grace Grace said businesses need to have plans in place to help keep workers safe.

“The high temperatures in the last couple of days are a timely reminder to look out for your colleagues and staff in the heat. Working in the heat can not only be uncomfortable: it can be dangerous and even fatal,” Minister Grace said.

In 2020 a worker collapsed and died after picking fruit on a farm in high temperatures, and in 2021 a North Queensland worker died from multiple organ failure due to heat-related illness.

In both cases, Minister Grace said the businesses involved were prosecuted and fined for failing to comply with health and safety duties.

“The solutions can be as simple as providing shade, avoiding outdoor work during the hottest part of the day, and ensuring inductions for new workers cover key safety measures.”

Minister Grace said it wasn’t just about temperature and humidity, and there is a range of other risk factors which need to be taken into consideration to protect workers.

“Obviously, exposure to direct and reflected sunlight, especially during the hottest part of the day, is a major risk, but air movement and radiant heat from plant and equipment being used need to be considered,” she said.

“An individual’s risk factors need to be considered in conjunction with environmental factors and the nature of the work. The type of work, clothing, medications, hydration levels, fitness and medical conditions are all part of the consideration.

“Remember, conditions can change daily so regular risk assessments are vital.”

To assist businesses to meet their obligations, Workplace Health and Safety Queensland has a heat stress (basic) calculator and guidance on managing the risk of heat stress.

NT WorkSafe also issued a reminder to employers about high temperatures and worker safety, after The Bureau of Meteorology recently forecasted severe to extreme heatwave conditions for parts of the Northern Territory.

Heat-related illnesses range from heat rashes, heat cramps and dehydration to heat exhaustion and heat stroke which can be fatal, and symptoms of heat-related illnesses can include excessive sweating, muscle cramps, nausea and vomiting.

The regulator said employers should:

  • Provide information at the start of each shift on the signs or symptoms of heat-related illnesses, including the emergency response procedures if a heat-related incident occurs
  • Consider scheduling the work to avoid the hottest part of the day
  • Share the workload between workers so as not to overload any one worker
  • Ensure workers have access to cold drinking water, which can assist workers with lowering their core temperature
  • Ensure workers have access to and use shade protection (at a minimum a hat and sunscreen)
  • Check personal protective equipment is appropriate for the type of work being done and the amount of heat workers are exposed to
  • Allow for more rest breaks so workers can cool down.