Australian workplaces and governments must determine strategies for dealing with increasingly hot weather that is killing workers and damaging productivity, according to an expert.
The last three years have been the hottest in the world’s recorded history, while the 2016-17 summer was the hottest ever, the president of the Australian Climate Health Alliance, Professor Liz Hanna said.
Dr Hanna, who is an expert on climate change and the impact of heat on workplace health and productivity, said it is inevitable that we are going to see increasingly extreme heat.
Sydney is edging towards having a 50-degree day,” she said, adding that northern Australia is sweltering and even Hobart’s 2016-17 summer was unusually hot and long.
“It’s getting hotter. The increase in humidity in Northern Australia is having a massive impact. When it’s humid we can’t lose heat to the environment, so we overheat.”
“Australia needs to work out how it is going to keep functioning without risking the lives of our workers,” she said.
Heat is a silent killer in Australia, according to Dr Hanna, who said heat-related deaths are often reported as heart attacks.
“Essentially what happens is your heart just gives up.”
“The environment that people are working in is getting hotter but we can’t stop working in the heat. We can’t close down industries. We can’t down tools. Yet we can’t kill our workers.”
“They are dying in their thousands in India,” she said, citing Government intervention to halt work of some industries to protect workers.
People overestimate their capacity to work in the heat
Research conducted by Dr Hanna and her colleagues from 2012 to 2015 analysed workers who reported on how they were coping with heat, what symptoms they had and how it impacted on their capacity to keep working.
“People uniformly overestimated their capacity to work in the heat.”
“There was definitely a degradation of productive output. Not only with heat but also with humidity and the level of dehydration,” she said, adding that dehydration markedly increases heat stress risks.
“They showed symptoms of degradation at much lower temperatures than they would have imagined.”
“These weren’t newbies. They were people used to working in a hot environment. They understood heat,” she added.
Structural changes required
Getting fundamentals right such as hydration monitoring and work-rest ratios is critical, while cooling vests and cool rooms are also important; however there also need to be structural changes according to Dr Hanna.
“We need a massive health promotion campaign. Just like anti-smoking so people can recognise the symptoms of heat stress in colleagues and co-workers. People don’t recognise the symptoms.”
“They also need to start listening to their bodies so they don’t think ‘I can do it, I can do it, I can do it,’ and then collapse in a heap.”
Heat delays must be factored into contracts
Delays must be factored into project schedules so workers are not forced to work in extreme heat to meet a deadline, according to Dr Hanna.
“If you are building a house there is leeway in the contract to allow for delays because of rain – we need that for heat,” she said.
“There can’t be unrealistic expectations on the builder or he will force construction workers to work when it’s too hot.”
She also criticised the design of many new homes.
“In Europe they provide rules that you must provide a safe thermal environment because of the cold. We are going to need the same thing for heat.”
The attire that people are expected to wear to work as well as transport systems also need to change, she added.
“Australia really needs to recognise that we are hot and getting hotter and factor that into the way we live our lives, the way we run our society and our expectations of workers.”