Advice for workers

It gets hot in Australia – like, really hot!  It can be dry heat, like you get in inland regions or it can be humid heat, like the lush tropics of Far North Qld and the Northern Territory, and temperatures will generally range anywhere between 10 and 45 degrees C (and higher), depending on where you are. 

The heat can be fatal for those not acclimatised or who don’t take the proper precautions.

Do not underestimate the heat of an Australian summer – especially when doing farm work outside. It is vital that you take all the necessary precautions to ensure you don’t suffer a heat-related incident. 

Heat stress – what is it?

Heat stress occurs when the body cannot get rid of excess heat. When this happens, the body’s core temperature rises and the heart rate increases.

A heat related illness can result from working outside in sunshine, doing heavy or repetitive manual work, working in packing or machinery sheds or other areas of high humidity, and/or wearing high levels of personal protective equipment – eg chemical/hazmat suits.

The employer should undertake a full Risk Assessment of the potential impacts of heat on employees and identify precautions and controls to manage the risk/s including providing water, shade and appropriate breaks during the hottest part of the day.

Some of the effects of excessive heat include:

Heat Rash

Also known as prickly heat, is skin irritation caused by sweat that does not evaporate from the skin. Heat rash is the most common problem in hot work environments.

Symptoms

  • Clusters of red bumps on skin
  • Often appears on neck, upper chest, folds of skin

First Aid

  • Try to work in a cooler, less humid environment when possible
  • Keep the affected area dry

Heat Cramps

Are caused by the loss of body salts and fluid during sweating. Low salt levels in muscles cause painful cramps. Tired muscles—those used for performing the work—are usually the ones most affected by cramps. Cramps may occur during or after working hours.

Symptoms

  • Muscle spasms
  • Pain

First Aid

  • Have worker rest in shady, cool area
  • Worker should drink water or other cool beverages
  • Wait a few hours before allowing worker to return to strenuous work
  • Have worker seek medical attention if cramps don’t go away

Heat Exhaustion

Is the body’s response to loss of water and salt from heavy sweating.

Symptoms

  • Cool, moist skin, heavy sweating
  • Headache, nausea or vomiting, dizziness, light headedness
  • Weakness
  • Thirst
  • Irritability
  • Rapid heart beat

First Aid

  • Have worker sit or lie down in a cool, shady area
  • Give worker plenty of water or other cool beverages to drink
  • Cool worker with cold compresses/ice packs
  • Call 000 if signs or symptoms worsen or do not improve within 60 minutes.
  • Do not return to work that day

Heat Stroke

The most serious form of heat-related illness, happens when the body becomes unable to regulate its core temperature. Sweating stops and the body can no longer rid itself of excess heat.

Symptoms

  • Confusion, fainting, seizures
  • Excessive sweating or red, hot, dry skin
  • Very high body temperature

Call 000

First Aid while you wait:

  • Place worker in shady, cool area
  • Loosen clothing, remove outer clothing
  • Fan air on worker; cold packs in armpits
  • Wet worker with cool water; apply ice packs, cool compresses, or ice if available
  • Provide fluids (preferably water) as soon as possible in SMALL sips
  • Stay with worker until help arrives

Complications

Untreated, heat exhaustion can lead to heatstroke, a life-threatening condition that occurs when your core body temperature reaches 104 F (40 C) or higher. Heatstroke requires immediate medical attention to prevent permanent damage to the brain and other vital organs that can result in death.

Prevention

You can take a number of steps to prevent heat-related illnesses. When the temperatures climb, remember to:

  • Wear loose fitting, lightweight clothing. 
  • Protect against sunburn.  Apply sunscreen generously, and reapply every two hours — or more often if you’re swimming or sweating.
  • Drink plenty of fluids. Staying hydrated will help your body sweat and maintain a normal body temperature.
  • Take extra precautions with certain medications/drugs.
  • Never leave anyone in a parked car.
  • Take it easy during the hottest parts of the day. If you can’t avoid strenuous activity in hot weather, drink lots of fluids and rest frequently in a cool spot.
  • Get acclimated. Limit time spent working in heat until you’re conditioned to it.
  • Be extra careful if you’re at increased risk. If you take medications or have a condition that increases your risk of heat-related problems, avoid the heat and act quickly if you notice symptoms of overheating.

RESOURCES

Guide for managing the risks of working in heat – Safework Australia

https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/doc/guide-managing-risks-working-heat

Workers’ Guide to Heat Stress (Michigan Uni)

https://ehs.msu.edu/occ/thermal-stress/heat-stress-guide.html