How to safely work in heat?

Risk Matters - Summer 2022 / 23

Picture of Rhys Vaughan

Rhys Vaughan

People Risk Consultant, LGIS

Rhys is a People Risk Consultant at LGIS, responsible for assisting members with meeting their workplace health and safety obligations. His previous roles include safety positions in prisons, private healthcare and local government.

The Work, Health and Safety Act WA (2020) requires local governments (PCBUs) to ensure health and safety, so far as is reasonably practicable, by eliminating hazards and risks. This includes a working environment that is safe and without risks to health, including illness from working in heat.

Workers also have a responsibility to take reasonable care of their own health and safety including complying with safety instructions provided by the local government. They also have to follow policies and procedures related to health and safety at a workplace (especially while working in heat).

Who’s at risk?

Outdoor workers, firefighters and those who are more susceptible to heat than others are at maximum risk of getting heat related health issues. 

What are the risks of working in heat?

Working under the harsh sun can be fatal. It can also lead to illnesses such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Exposure to the sun can cause permanent damage to the skin and eyes. It’s important to remember that sunlight is carcinogenic and causes cancers such as melanoma, basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma. 

Heat exhaustion occurs when there is an excessive loss of water and salt from the body, usually through sweating. Signs include feeling dizzy, excessive sweating, cool, pale or clammy skin, nausea or vomiting, and muscle cramps.

Heat stroke happens when the core body temperature rises and the body’s internal system starts to shut down. You can’t sweat and the body is unable to get rid of excess heat, affecting the internal nervous system along with potential damage to organs, and in worst circumstances, death. Signs include throbbing headache, no sweating, red, hot and dry skin, nausea, vomiting and unconsciousness.

Working in the heat can also lead to fatigue, impacting a worker’s physical performance. 

Other sections in this season's Risk Matters

How to safely work in heat?

The Work, Health and Safety Act WA (2020) requires local governments (PCBUs) to ensure health and safety, so far as is reasonably practicable, by eliminating hazards and risks.

Read More »

Factors leading to heat related ailments

  • One of the major factors resulting in heat related illnesses is dehydration.
  • Environmental conditions like direct sun exposure, lack of breeze and high temperatures.
  • Activities involving high exertion, not enough breaks and consecutive days of working in heat.
  • No acclimatisation – returning from time away, new workers
  • Health conditions like poor physical fitness and being overweight

How can local governments manage hazards?

Members can help their workers manage the risk of working in the heat by addressing the identified hazards: 

  • Encourage them to work indoors where possible. If this scenario is not possible, ensure outdoor tasks are completed in early morning, afternoon or evening hours. This will help mitigate the risk of direct exposure.
  • Planning the workload to gradually build tolerance to the heat can be a great solution to reduce risks. For instance, workers can work at 50% work rate on day 1, 60% on day 2, 80% on day 3, 90% on day 4 and 100% on day 5.
  • Workers should be provided with instructions, education and awareness on various hazards involved when working
    in the heat and how they can protect themselves from related illnesses.
  • Local governments can consult their workers on how hazards are being managed. Also, workers should be encouraged to discuss working in heat during toolbox talks when extreme temperatures have been forecast to allow managers to plan the work appropriately. 
  • The last line of defence should be appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) such as long sleeves and long trousers. Workers should also be provided with sunscreen and hats. 

Tips for workers

  • Stay hydrated by drinking water regularly
  • Monitor urine colour
  • Wear the PPE provided and apply sunscreen 
  • Look out for each other, if you notice you or another worker showing signs of heat related illness, have them rest in a shaded place, drink cold water. Report to supervisor.
  • Seek medical assistance or first aid if symptoms don’t reduce quickly. 

Top tip

Submerging hands in water above the wrists is a proven method to help the body control temperature when affected by extreme heat. Having a bucket of cold water available to submerge hands has been used for many years as an effective control measure for firefighters during their initial training.

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