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Paramedics have been called out to over 30 cases where workers have suffered heat stroke or exhaustion during the latest spate of extreme heat in south-east Australia.
As escalating temperatures scorch the countryside, health experts have started issuing public warnings about the dangers of strenuous activity and extreme heat.
It’s important that workers understand that they have the right to work in a safe environment and that employers understand it’s their responsibility to provide that safe workspace; be it extreme heat or cold, the weather has the ability to impact upon the physical and psychological condition of employees.
So what are your rights when it comes to extreme weather conditions? Do you have to sweat through the midday sun during 43 degree heat risking dehydration; is frostbite a legitimate risk for essential outdoor workers during extreme cold?
Work involving hot or cold temperatures can result in a range of symptoms from irritation to life threatening conditions. Employers must understand it is illegal to expose their employees to extreme heat or cold, but you might be asking yourself…how are these conditions determined?
For a workplace to be considered unfit because of high temperatures, the following factors may contribute:
*Exposure to high thermal radiation
*Close proximity to high levels of humidity
*Amount of air movement
*Physical activity (metabolic heat load)
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS
Heat illness covers a large array of medical conditions that arise from your body not being able to cope. These conditions may include:
The NSW Occupational Health and Safety Regulation guidelines state that’s important to distinguish between a condition, which threatens the health or safety of a worker, and a feeling of discomfort.
Thermal discomfort may occur in an office on a hot and humid day where there is no functioning air-conditioning, and whilst measures should be taken by the employer to ensure the comfort of their employee, there is minimal risk of a medical condition developing.
However, Heat exhaustion and the even more severe, heat stress, are medical conditions which should be addressed by a medical professional. Heat stress is a medical emergency and an ambulance should called if an employee shows worsening symptoms.
These conditions, along with hypothermia or frostbite, which can occur in extreme cold, are serious health complications which can lead to long-term medical problems and even death.
Both inside and outdoor workers are vulnerable to these conditions; depending on their industry and working conditions, ie. an employee working in a bakery around ovens on a high-temperature day is placomced under a similar degree of physical duress as a landscape gardener is under those same weather conditions as their work exacerbates the heat.
Simple steps can be taken by an employer to ensure that their employees are as safe as possible during these times, whilst still placating workflow deadlines. Employers should consider rescheduling working hours and altering schedules so that heavy lifting or laborious work is rotated fairly amongst staff. Staff should be fitted out with appropriate work wear for the weather conditions, and in extreme heat, water and sunscreen should be distributed regularly. Those working from great heights or with potentially dangerous machinery should be considered at most risk — heat fatigue may not be of much concern as a health condition, but fainting at the controls or heavy machinery or a high apparatus could potentially cause unprecedented harm.
Work Health and Safety Legislation should be checked regularly by employers and by those staff who want to know more about their rights in the workplace.
The WorkCover website has the following legal recommendations for employers:
“A person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU – the new term that includes employers) must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that workers carrying out work in extremes of heat or cold are able to carry out work without a risk to their health and safety.
Personal and environmental factors should be considered when assessing the risk to workers’ from working in a very hot or cold environment.
Personal factors include:
- the level of physical activity
- the amount and type of clothing worn
- the duration of the exposure.
Environmental factors include:
- air temperature
- the level of humidity
- the level of air movement and radiant heat.’
For more information, the code of practice for Managing the work environment and facilities provides guidelines on how to minimise or eliminate exposure to extreme hot or cold conditions.
NSW Government’s WorkCover website’s “Working in heat” fact sheet can be found here: WorkCover- Working in heat