If you’re an Australian tradie, you know what it’s like to have wet weather shut down your site (and productivity) for the day. 

But what about when the weather gets too hot instead? Should workers be ordered to drop their tools down in the name of safety?

Think about; long days, heavy work gear, sweaty boots, red face, and hours in the searing sun — these conditions can really take their toll after a while.

It's important to keep tradies safe on the job. So, with the warm Australian weather hanging around, we ask; how hot is ‘too hot’ to work?

The heat dilemma for workers

In December 2018 and early 2019, temperature records were toppled around the country, with a weeks-long heatwave and dangerously high temps lasting throughout January.

According to Risk Frontiers’ historical analysis, January is a bad month when it comes to heat-related fatalities, with its General Manager, Andrew Rissing reporting that the majority of major, deadly “heat events” between 1850 and 2010 all occurred in January.

Two recent outback deaths of German tourist Monika Billen and WA mother-of-two Felicity Shadbolt, had at least one thing in common — they both took place during a period of roaring summer temperatures around 40 degrees Celsius.

And it doesn’t even need to reach 40 degrees for things to become dangerous. In 2018, a Pilbara field technician died after walking 34km over two days, in 36 to 37 degree heat.

A significant incident report by the Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety went on to conclude that the death was a work-related fatality caused by dehydration and renal failure. It also found the procedures in place around heat stress were inadequate, including the fact that the workers had no access to a suitable cool-down area, such as an air-conditioned vehicle.

Despite the rising heat, workers often feel pressured to stay at work and press on, with some being considered “weak” if they call it a day.

Even though you know it’s blisteringly hot, you find yourself ignoring the heat and sweating it out to get the job done, especially if you’re paid by the hour in a construction role.

Farm, wind turbine, sun rising in Australia
With Australia's weather only heating up, so should the topic of safety at work. Photo: iStock

The legal position

It’s clear the nation (and the world) is heating up, but the laws around working in warm conditions haven’t heated up in response.

There is only a loose commitment under Australian law to take reasonable steps to keep workers safe, which means whether you send home your staff or drop tools, is largely a discretionary decision.

The Model Work Health Safety Act includes a general obligation for business owners to ensure workers are not exposed to health and safety risks (WHS Act s 19) and the WHS Regulations states that workers carrying out work in extremes of heat or cold must be able to carry out work without risk to health and safety however the duties to manage and minimise heat-related risks are not specific.

Safe Work Australia has also released a guide in December 2017 for managing the risks in the heat, including a checklist for risk-managing heat in the workplace.

The Guide states that ‘working in heat can be hazardous and can cause harm to workers. The human body needs to maintain a body temperature of approximately 37 degrees Celsius.’ It lists the range of consequences of working in extreme heat including burns, rashes, fainting, dehydration and reduced concentration.

Aussie tradie on hot day wipes sweat off brow
You may want to drop tools but your hard yakka mentality tells you to ‘just get the job done’. Photo: iStock

What do the experts and health professionals say?

Here’s what some of the experts say about heat-related risks:

  • Dr Hanna has studied outdoor workers from all over Australia to see at what point heat-related illness affected them. She found that the productivity of workers declined in high heat conditions and has warned of more deaths if we don’t change the laws. She is calling for a mandatory graded temperature threshold for certain construction jobs, so that heat, humidity, apparent temperature and the physical intensity of work are all key factors.
  • Award-winning heat stress expert, Matt Brearley, from Darwin's National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre, has warned of the deadly consequences that can come from bushwalking or physical exertion in extreme temperatures, such as 40 degrees celsius and above. Beginning with headaches, nausea and lethargy, symptoms can quickly become critical.
  • Dr Naroa Etxebarria (University of Canberra) has conducted PhD research on the rise in body temperature when exerting oneself in extreme heat. She was alarmed to discover workers often felt they couldn’t walk off the job without fear of serious repercussions and she has told ABC that she believes stronger, more detailed laws in this area are required.
  • A study published in the American Geophysical Union Journal, Earth's Future, has revealed that outdoor workers will need to start before the crack of dawn in the future to avoid excessive heat stress.
  • A study by researchers at the National Institute for Environmental Studies in Japan found excessive heat stress reduces the capability of physical labour, leads to economic loss and could result in 5.7 hour shifts and more night work by the end of the century if we don’t get a handle on climate control.

In Dr Etxebarria’s view, no-one working with hot and heavy objects should be outside for long periods during a heatwave.

"It can definitely be life-threatening and even fatal, especially if you have a certain type of health condition," she told ABC in January 2019.

Tradie takes a break to drink water in construction site
If it's hot, remember to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate... Photo: iStock

Tips for tradies and construction employers

Under the law, as an employer, you must do everything that is reasonably practicable to eliminate the risks associated with working in heat. This may include cancelling certain work tasks, rescheduling tasks to cooler parts of the day or waiting for hot conditions to pass.

If you cannot eliminate the risk, you must minimise it as much as reasonably practicable. If you’re a worker, make sure you read the Safe Work Australia Guide to understand your rights and obligations. Using your common sense and practical wisdom also helps.

John Whiting, a self-employed construction worker who has been on and off the tools for the last 30 years, has simple advice for working in extreme conditions.

"If it's hot: hydrate, hydrate, hydrate and try and take frequent breaks," he told the ABC.

Here’s some more tips to counterbalance the heat risks:

  • If you’re an employer, consider sending workers home when the temperature reaches 37C and perform regular medical checks to make sure your staff aren’t overheating
  • If you feel faint, dizzy, sick or affected by the heat — call 000
  • Schedule heavy or strenuous work for cooler times of the day or year (or ask your employer to work at different times)

With climate change having more lasting impacts on our weather patterns, tradies and outdoor workers in Australia's warmest regions are also being encouraged to pick up their tools before the sun rises.

If you’re seeking guidance on the heat dilemma, Workplace Health and Safety Queensland has published a Heat Stress basic calculator that may assist you in assessing the risk of working in the heat.

And don't forget — stay safe, cool and hydrated.

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