Workers have a duty to maintain heat tolerance on holidays: expert
Workers must take responsibility for ensuring they remain physically able to perform their job after holidays, according to associate professor in thermal physiology, Dr Nigel Taylor.
As a specialist in physiological employment standards, Taylor regularly advises the Australian Defence Force and the emergency services on employment standards, and described sedentary behaviour and the overuse of air conditioning as inhibiting the body’s ability to tolerate hot conditions.
“If I have a physically demanding job, and all I’ve done on my holidays is drink beer and sit in an air conditioned room in front of the cricket, then I may be potentially letting my employer down,” he said.
“Whilst there are clear health and safety obligations for employers, employees are also obliged to maintain the necessary health and fitness to meet their workplace obligations.”
Citing astronaut bed rest studies, Dr Taylor said that a sedentary lifestyle causes significant damage to the body.
“After one month of bed rest, the physical and functional deteriorations are amazing. Fitness and muscle mass are greatly reduced. Therefore, floating in a pool drinking beer and eating pizza for a month – whilst being idyllic for some – is very detrimental to your health and your ability to work.”
Dr Taylor stated that while employers needed to make special allowances for extremely hot weather there is an obligation for workers to maintain a reasonable capability to work in hot conditions.
“There is no surprise that it’s hot in summer,” he said, adding that it’s vital employers communicate their expectations to workers.
“Workers don’t need to shovel concrete on their holidays, but if they become sedentary for a month, then they will reduce their ability to do their job, and they will experience greater difficulty during times of elevated work-related stress,” Dr Taylor said, adding that if their diet is unhealthy and they consume excessive amounts of alcohol then the impact can be worse still.
Post Holidays Management
Dr Taylor said that as well as standard heat stress mitigation measures, management should check what workers have done on holidays to best minimise any potential heat-related illness or safety issues upon their return.
“They should ask workers returning from annual leave: ‘what have you done for the last month?’ and if they respond: ‘I just sat around the pool’ then they need to modify the work they give them.”
“And if the worker is 50 as opposed to 25 then the work modification may need to be dramatically different. Some older, less-active workers need to be treated more carefully,” Dr Taylor added.
The role played by drugs and alcohol
As well as diet and general health, prescription and recreational drugs can also reduce an individual’s ability to tolerate hot conditions.
Dr Taylor described increased heat production and reduced bodily heat loss from sweating and skin blood flow as three cooling mechanisms that are impacted by many drugs, most notably amphetamines, antidepressants, antihistamines and blood pressure medications.
Diuretics such as caffeine and alcohol can also contribute to reduced heat tolerance due to their tendency to increase urine production, according to Dr Taylor.
“However, not all caffeine and alcohol consumption will be problematic. It is how you choose to take those drinks that is really important. The critical factor, as well as the total amount of caffeine or alcohol consumed, is the concentration of each drink – the total volume of fluid,” he said, describing spirits, liquors and short blacks as worse.
“However if you’re having six beers a night then you are absolutely having a diuretic effect,” he added.