Based upon organisational incident and injury data heat stress may appear well-managed, however, heat stress is chronically under-reported – often blinding organisational and OHS professionals to the impact of heat stress on worker health, safety and productivity, according to an expert in the area.
For example, a large Queensland-based organisation (with more than 3000 field workers) had 22 heat-related incidents during the 7-month heat season from October through to April, with the vast majority of incidents classified as minor, said Matt Brearley, a leading occupational heat stress consultant and managing director of Thermal Hyperformance.
Yet, during the same period, the workforce (based upon 918 survey respondents) reported fatigue (40 per cent on a daily or weekly basis), irritability (38 per cent) and headache (33 per cent).
“This disparity is likely attributable to workers normalising heat stress symptoms, resulting in self-management. It’s also likely that some workers experience heat stress symptoms after departing the work site,” said Brearley, who recently spoke at the AIHS Visions Conference which was held from 7-9 September at Mantra Sharks in Southport QLD.
In terms of heat stress, Brearley said the primary challenges for OHS professionals are overcoming heat stress’ lack of visibility and reliance upon hydration as the predominant heat stress control.
“Most Australian organisations provide access to cool drinking water, however, the prevention of dehydration is insufficient to control heat stress for many workers,” he said.
“Performing physical work produces body heat – the harder the work, the greater the body heat produced.
“In cool conditions, this heat is readily transferred to the environment, but heat, humidity and radiation from the sun or hot surfaces limits the potential for body heat dissipation.
“This may lead to increased body temperature and the onset of physical and mental fatigue and the likelihood of injuries,” said Brearley.
Faced with an invisible hazard and a lack of evidence-based controls, he explained OHS professionals might focus on what they perceive can be managed.
As a result, heat stress management often morphs into hydration management as worker hydration can be quantified, and seemingly monitored, yet Brearley said many hydration myths persist in the workplace.
“The primary cause of heat stress, body temperature, may remain unchecked, perpetuating worker heat stress onsite,” he said.