Handling the heat

High temperatures can impact indoor workplaces too

Handling the heat

In Western Australia, it is not unusual to see 35C-plus days throughout the summer.

And while that is great if you have the time to head to the beach or a pool, for employers, they need to be wary of the conditions and what resources they need for employees to work in a safe environment.

“Employers have an obligation to ensure the health and safety of workers,” Jo Alilovic, director, 3D HR Legal, said. “Given the serious impacts that heat can have on health, high temperatures or heatwaves need to be considered as a potential safety risk and managed appropriately.”

Eliminating risks

This means a risk assessment will be required, he said.

“Assessing the risk will include monitoring weather conditions, considering the existing plans to manage the effects of heat, and implementing appropriate steps to eliminate the risk – or where not possible, to reduce the risk as far as practicable.”

Eliminating the risk may include stopping work for the day.

“Where that is not necessary, then alternative safety measures may be used such as more frequent or extended work breaks, provision of cool environments for those breaks such as air-conditioned lunchrooms, provision of cold water, sun cream, hats and protective clothing,” Alilovic said.

The consequences of not addressing heat stress include reduced concentration, judgment and reaction time, causing a potential increase in the risk of worker injury, according to one expert.

Defining a heatwave

According to the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM), a heatwave occurs when the maximum and minimum temperatures are unusually hot over a three-day period at a location. 

But it takes more than just a high daily maximum temperature to define a heatwave. It’s also about how much it cools down overnight. For example, if the temperature stays high overnight, the maximum will be reached the following day and will last longer, making it harder to recover and putting more stress on the body. 

Heatwaves are classified into three types, based on intensity: 

  • Low-intensity heatwaves: more frequent during summer and lower risk. 
  • Severe heatwaves: less frequent but more challenging for vulnerable people such as the elderly, pregnant women and young children. 
  • Extreme heatwaves: rare but very risky for people who don’t take precautions to keep cool regardless if they’re healthy. 

Indoor heatwaves

“We usually think of heatwaves only affecting outdoor workers but it can impact indoor workers as well,” Alilovic said. “For example, office workers where the air conditioning is ineffective. Or those who work in large warehouses/factories where it is not possible to adequately cool the working environment.”

Employers should also give consideration to the employee’s commute to work when considering risk to health and safety.

“If an employer requires work to continue during hot conditions like a heatwave and does not have adequate safety precautions in place, and the employee is injured or develops an illness as a result, the employer will be liable for the injury under both workers compensation and safety laws,” she said.

“Obligations and responsibilities may exist as well under applicable awards and may also be set out in individual contracts of employment, and often in enterprise agreements. The employer must meet these contractual obligations as well.”

Employer obligations

While the BOM issues heatwave warnings to each state and territory, employers are still obligated to monitor conditions, conduct risk assessments and have adequate plans in place to protect the safety of all their workers.

They’re also expected to effectively communicate plans with the broader company. 

“Just as employers have an obligation to manage the health and safety of workers, so too do the workers themselves,” Alilovic said. “Therefore, if they identify unsafe conditions, they have the right to stop work when there are reasonable grounds for believing that there is a serious risk to their health and safety.”

But this doesn’t mean that employees can just choose to take the day off, she said.

“In these circumstances, where it is not possible for someone to perform their normal work due to safety concerns, then first it should be considered what measures can be put in place to make the work safe.

“If that is not possible, then the employer can consider reasonable alternative duties. For example, asking outside workers to work in the office or in the warehouse/yard, so long as the alternative tasks are reasonable and within the employee’s capabilities.”

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