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Hottest spring on record points to heat stress dangers

With Queensland recording its equal hottest spring on record and summer now upon us, working in heat requires employers to take extra precautions to avoid heat-related workplace injury and death.

A recent heat stress fatality in Queensland and a huge fine for the employer has highlighted how workers need information and facilities to escape the fierce effects of working outdoors, or in hot enclosed environments. The recent prosecution of a sole trader resulted in a $65,000 fine for the death of a Belgian backpacker who was picking produce in the Burdekin.

The court heard the defendant employed a backpacker new to Australia who was not inducted in the operation’s work system, although he was shown how to pick produce. On just his fourth day on the job, he collapsed while picking and subsequently died as a result of heat related illness.

An investigation by Workplace Health and Safety Queensland revealed the defendant’s system for instructing workers, particularly new ones, was inadequate. Very limited information was provided to them on heat related illness, how to self-manage and determine their work capacity, as well as the requirements for hydration and other ways to alleviate the effects of working in a hot thermal environment. The investigation found the defendant did not consider whether there was a need to provide or organise shelter at the client farms or to organise and plan how the picking work could be done outside the hottest part of the day.

Queensland law requires workers be provided with heat and sun protection, as well as heat and sun safety awareness training explaining to them how to identify and manage heat risks, report problems and recognise signs of heat-related-illness. If they have trouble understanding , or are concerned they're working in an unsafe, hot environment, workers should be encouraged to speak up.

Employers must ensure workers wear protective gear, including a broad brimmed hat and sunscreen with SPF 30+ or more, take adequate breaks, seek shade and keep hydrated to prevent heat exhaustion, heat stroke, fainting and cramps.

Heat stress risk is not just related to temperature – a combination of factors contributes to heat-related problems at work, including

  • exposure to direct sunlight, especially during the hottest part of the day
  • exposure to reflected heat from construction materials, polished aluminium and glass
  • carrying out strenuous tasks or work for sustained long periods
  • exposure to additional heat sources from machinery or work processes
  • inadequate rest periods or facilities for cooling off and insufficient water consumption
  • climatic conditions (low air movement, high humidity, high temperature)
  • inappropriate clothing
  • factors that may cause dehydration such as poor diet, vomiting, diarrhoea or alcohol and caffeine consumption
  • factors that can make workers more vulnerable to the effects of heat such as body weight, age, general health, level of fitness, certain prescription and illicit drug use and certain medical conditions.

Further information

To help workplaces navigate the extremes of climate in Queensland, Workplace Health and Safety Queensland has a Heat stress (basic) calculator tool to predict if heat-induced illness is likely to occur.