Summer in Queensland brings with it hot weather and plentiful sunshine, making it perfect for enjoying a cold drink or relaxing on the beach. But, for those who have to work in it, these conditions are more of a nightmare than a sunbather’s dream. What can workers and their employers do to help beat the heat?
How hot is it?
The average temperature in Queensland during the summer sits at around 33 degrees during the day, although temperatures have been known to touch 40 degrees and then some! To put this into perspective, in December 2019 the second highest temperature in Queensland on record was recorded in Birdsville, at a scorching 49.3 degrees. When you consider the fact that the comfortable working temperature for a human being is between 20 and 27 degrees, it’s inevitable that the Queensland summer heat will cause at least some issues for those working within it.
Industries at high risk
It stands to reason that those working outside and completing manual labour will feel the effects of the sun and the heat the most, especially if no natural shade is available. Industries like construction, road workers, tradies, and others find themselves working outside regularly.
But, it’s not just those in the great outdoors that need to be aware of the risks posed by the heat. People working in poorly ventilated spaces, or in occupations where they need to handle or be around hot materials, such as bakers and steel workers, will also feel the additional strain.
Between 2009 and 2019, over 1,774 people had their claims accepted for compensation due to the effects of working in the heat.
Heat health risks
There are a number of health risks to consider when working in the heat, especially when workers are unable to cool off. These include:
- Heat rash
- Heat stroke
- Heat cramps
Prolonged exposure to the heat could also cause lapses in concentration, which is particularly dangerous for those working with heavy machinery, as well as impact the way that the body takes up certain medications and the chemicals within them, which could pose a problem to workers managing both short and long term health issues. If proper UV protection is not applied to the skin when working under the heat of the sun, there is also an increased risk of skin cancers.
The current legislation
The Queensland and Australian governments maintain that every business and workplace has a duty of care to “ensure the health and safety of their workers and others at the workplace”. As part of this duty of care, this includes ensuring that workers are protected from unsafe temperatures and heat to as reasonable an extent as possible, even though there are no maximum temperature limits set for work.
What reasonable adjustments can employers make?
There are plenty of reasonable adjustments that employers can make to ensure the safety and comfort of their employees who are working in the heat. These include, but are not limited to:
- Access to cooling systems, such as air conditioning, or cooler areas of the workplace such as shaded areas.
- Free and readily available access to water.
- Adjusted working hours to cooler times of the day or night time working.
- Suitable ventilation where applicable.
- Regular mandated breaks in line with temperature limits.
- Slowing the rate of work and associated work targets during hotter weather.
- Carrying out regular risk assessments for heat exposure.
Future-proofing against the heat
Future investments and planning could also pave the way for better productivity and workplace safety during the hotter months. This is something that workplaces should consider implementing now, as the onward creep of climate change means that we are likely to see hotter and more adverse conditions as the years roll by.
For example, automating labour-intensive processes can help to save worker exhaustion, and a gradual shift of working hours and schedules can help employees to be able to work more effectively during cooler times or in shorter bursts. Businesses should also take the planning of future premises and workspaces into account, ensuring that they have adequate cooling technologies, ventilation, and space to be future-proofed for many more summers to come.
HR practices could also be adapted for businesses that regularly have to deal with the threat of heat exposure affecting their employees. Implementing training to help workers to notice the signs of heat stress in themselves and others can help to minimise accidents in the workplace, and a policy of paid leave, if conditions become too hot or unsafe to work, can be an enticing offer not only for recruitment but for employee retention, which is critical for industries requiring skilled workers.
How other countries cope with the heat
Queensland’s businesses and workplaces could also look to examples from other countries where the heat is a barrier to working conditions.
Countries like Spain set limits on temperature thresholds when it comes to different types of work, ranging from ideal office temperatures to those for workers undertaking manual labour. Although there is no maximum heat restriction in Queensland’s legislation, this is something that employers could implement within their own companies.
In the UAE, heat stress policies make it so that during the hottest parts of the year working hours are shortened and breaks are made more frequent.
What can employees do?
If an employee feels that the conditions that they are working in are becoming unsafe due to the heat, this should be something they should feel confident approaching their supervisor or manager about.
In the event that discussions are unsuccessful or unsatisfactory, getting a worker’s union involved can be a great way to advocate for their needs. Often these unions are specialised to the sector and industry involved, and so they have plenty of experience and knowledge when it comes to the matters at hand.
If all else fails, or if an injury or long-term damage is caused due to working in the heat, an employee is well within their rights to seek legal advice and compensation from their employer.
If you want to further understand your rights when it comes to working in the Queensland heat, or with any other workplace hazard, Smith’s Lawyers are happy to help. Get in touch with our knowledgeable team today to extinguish those burning worries.