Heat-Related Injury in the Workplace

In the summer months Australia can be extremely hot and for those who work in industrial settings such as factories or distributions centres, the warmer weather can be horrendous.

While many of us work in air-conditioned offices, spare a thought for those workers who endure excessive temperatures and stagnant air just to get the job done. In addition to those who work outdoors, employees working in factories and distribution centres are often forced to work in conditions that are hot and uncomfortable.

In this article we take a look at the duties placed upon employers when it comes to hot working conditions and what employers and employees can do to manage heat in this type of workplace.

Working in hot conditions

The heat in Australia is not something to be taken lightly. Heat kills more Australians than any natural disaster and heatstroke is lethal in up to 80% of cases. With this in mind employers should be ever vigilant when it comes to their workers and the heat.

Working in heat can not only lead to workers suffering serious illnesses but it can also lead to increased accidents. New research conducted by the University of Adelaide has made a link between hotter temperatures and injury claims. This is likely because heat-related illness and fatigue can impair thinking and reaction times, which can increase the risk of worker injury by them making errors, dropping tools or stumbling etc.

So what is a heat-related injury?

A heat-related injury can occur when a person is exposed to abnormal or prolonged amounts of heat and humidity without relief or adequate fluid intake. Heat related injuries can include:

  • Heat rash;
  • Heat cramps;
  • Heat exhaustion;
  • Heat stroke.

The most common signs and symptoms of heat stress include:

  • Heavy sweating;
  • Headaches;
  • Tiredness and weakness;
  • Dizziness or fainting;
  • Slurred speech or blurred vision;
  • Nausea and vomiting;
  • Painful muscle spasms or cramps
  • Rapid pulse or rapid breathing.

Employers have a duty to keep their employees safe from injury. They must, as far as is reasonably practicable, ensure the health and safety of their employees while they are at work. This includes providing adequate facilities for the welfare of workers while at work. Further, the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011 places a duty on employers to ensure, so far as reasonably practicable, that:

  • Ventilation enables workers to carry out work without risk to health and safety; and
  • Workers carrying out work in extremes of heat or cold are able to carry out work without risk to their health and safety.

So what can employers do to achieve this?

While air-conditioning factories or distribution centres is often impracticable due to the sheer size of these facilities and the associated expense, a warehouse in the US has recently installed several large-diameter industrial ceiling fans. These fans measure 3.7 meters and allow for consistent air movement that has a 5.6 degree Celsius cooling effect on employees.  Installing these fans is certainly a method of providing adequate ventilation and therefore reducing an employee’s risk of suffering from a heat-related injury.

Employers have a duty to address problems with extreme temperatures in the workplace and should ensure that:

  • They have a plan in place for treating heat affected workers;
  • Workers are screened for heat tolerance;
  • Workers follow their doctor’s advice before working in hot conditions;
  • Provide a cool and shady place for rest and meal breaks;
  • Provide employees with good hydration;
  • Adjusting work hours;
  • Insulting the roofs and walls of the workplace;
  • Insulating o shielding sources of heat in the workplace;
  • Ducting hot exhausts outside the workplace;
  • Offer more flexible working arrangements;
  • Conducting a general heat hazard audit to identify and prioritise areas/processes of concern.

What should workers do?

Workers too must take reasonable care for their own health and safety while at work. So what can workers do to try and minimise their exposure to heat stress or heat-related injuries?

They can:

  • Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and limit their caffeine intake;
  • Have regular rest or cooling off breaks;
  • Wear loose fitting clothing.

How to treat heat-related injuries

Treatment for a heat-related injury can include:

  • Laying the person down and raising their feet about 30cms of the ground;
  • Applying cool, wet cloths (or cool water directly) to the person’s skin and using a fan to lower their body temperature;
  • Placing cold compresses on the person’s neck, groin, and armpits;
  • If alert, giving the person water to sip, preferably a half cup every 15 minutes;
  • If the person shows signs of decreased alertness, starts having seizures, or loses consciousness call Triple Zero (000) and request an ambulance immediately.

A heat-related injury is not something that should be taken lightly. If a worker is showing signs of suffering from a heat related injury then it is essential to immediately render treatment and, if necessary, call for an ambulance.

Employers must take certain steps to ensure that their employees are not exposed to conditions that will likely result in a heat-related injury. If they fail to do this and an employee is injured then this employee may bring a claim for negligence against their employer.

With this being said though, a degree of permanent damage and/or ongoing effects resultant of the heat-related injury would need to be present for the claim to be worthwhile pursuing. The lack of permanent damage or ongoing effects does not however prevent the employee from lodging a claim for compensation with WorkCover Queensland for any lost wages and/or medical expenses they may have incurred at the time they suffered the injury.

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