The mercury’s rising all over the country, and Southern Australia has been hit particularly hard by the soaring temperatures.

On January 3, the Bureau of Meteorology published its Annual Climate Statement, which showed that 2013 was the “hottest year on record” – a trend that looks set to continue.

The statement revealed that average temperatures across the country were 1.2 degrees celsius higher than the long-term average of 21.8 degrees celsius. Each state and territory experienced temperatures that were above average, and January 2013 now holds the record for the hottest day (January 7), hottest week and hottest month.

This year, however, could see the record broken again. Southern Australia is battling heat wave conditions, and the Bureau of Meteorology has now issued a warning that states the weather shows no signs of cooling down.

In fact, the ABC reported in a January 16 article that heat waves in Australia are becoming “more frequent, hotter and are lasting longer because of climate change”.

New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria can all expect to face “very hot northerly winds” over the coming days, with temperatures expected to hit 40 degrees celsius and over in some inland areas.

What are the risks?

Having to perform tasks in soaring temperatures can be dangerous if the necessary steps aren’t taken. All outdoor workers, who are exposed to high levels of UV radiation for extended periods of time, are more likely to suffer from heat-related illnesses, such as heat stress, as well as develop conditions such as skin cancer.

It’s therefore important for outdoor workers to understand the risks that heat waves pose and how to protect themselves and others in the workplace.
“Severe and extreme heat waves pose significant risks to human health and safety, in particular for the elderly, who are more vulnerable to the effects of heat stress,” said Alasdair Hainsworth, Assistant Director for Weather Services, in a January 13 statement.

“When average conditions are exceeded over a period of time by continuously high night-time and day-time temperatures, heat stress becomes a critical factor in human survival and infrastructure resilience.”

What is heat stress?

According to SafeWork South Australia, heat stress occurs when the body is unable to regulate its temperature using cooling mechanisms such as sweating. This is usually because your body is absorbing heat from the environment faster than it can lose heat.

The factors that may contribute to heat stress are the temperature and humidity of the environment you are working in, the amount of air movement it allows, what kind of clothing you are wearing and what type of physical activity you are undertaking.

This problem is more common in outdoor workers who are unfit, have existing heart problems, are overweight, drink excessive amounts of alcohol or are on some form of medication.
In addition to this, outdoor workers who are “acclimatised” to the conditions are more likely to suffer from heat stress.

The Department of Commerce states that it usually takes between 7 and 14 days for a worker to become acclimatised to a working environment. This can be “entirely lost” if the worker is away from the working environment for more than four weeks.

That means “fly-in, fly-out” workers have an increased risk of being adversely impacted by soaring temperatures.

What are the symptoms?

There is a variety of symptoms associated with heat stress, ranging from mild to extreme.  At the former end of the spectrum, workers may:

– appear flushed
– sweat more
– experience heat rashes (also known as “prickly heat”)
– feel tired, dizzy or irritable,
– have a reduced attention span and / or work capacity.

If no steps are taken to relieve these symptoms, workers can begin to suffer from heat exhaustion, which may cause low blood pressure, fainting, headaches and an increase in body temperature or even heat stroke.

The symptoms of heat stroke include confusion, problems with speech, convulsions and – in extreme cases – cardiac arrest. This is potentially fatal, states the Department of Commerce – so it’s important to avoid a worker from reaching this stage in the first place.

What can you do to avoid it?

All employers are required to provide their workers with a safe and healthy environment in which to perform tasks. You should never forget that this applies to outdoor environments, too!
There are a number of steps employers can take to prevent heat waves from putting their outdoor workers’ lives in danger.

Employers:

– Make sure your outdoor workers are well versed in the risks associated with spending too much time in the scorching heat. You can do this by providing them with OHS training, such as the UV and Heat Awareness Training Course that AlertForce offers.

This will equip your staff with the skills and knowledge they need to identify, assess and control the hazards posed by UV radiation. It will also give them a grounding in first aid treatments for workers suffering from such outdoor hazards.

– If possible, reschedule tasks so they can be performed at cooler times of the day, or in cooler areas. Workplace Health and Safety Queensland suggests conducting outdoor tasks either before 10am or after 3pm during the summer months.

– Make sure your outdoors workers are taking plenty of breaks. You should provide an area for them to rest and recover in that’s near to where they are working, states the University of Sydney’s “Guidelines for Outdoor Workers”, so they don’t have to travel far to have a break. This area should also be shaded and as cool as possible.

– You may also want to consider hiring more outdoor workers or boosting worker rotation so that no one is forced to spend too much time in the sun.

Employees:

Of course, OHS is not just the employer’s responsibility. It’s also up to outdoor workers to look after themselves and each other. Here are just some of the ways you can do this.

– You should try to drink about 200 millilitres of water every 20 minutes, according to WorkCover NSW. It’s important that you stick to water, rather than caffeinated beverages such as coffee, tea and soda, or energy drinks. WorkCover NSW reveals that energy drinks have a diuretic effect, which could make working in the heat more rather than less dangerous!

– Wear the appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to shield yourself from the sun. This could include a broad-brimmed hat, sunglasses, clothing that covers as much of your body as possible and plenty of sunscreen. This will not only help you to keep cool, but also reduce the amount of UV radiation your skin is being exposed to – reducing your chances of developing skin cancer.

Want to know more?

Get in touch with the team at AlertForce today and ask about our UV and Heat Awareness Training Course – it could save your life!