Employer obligations when the heat rises
When temperatures in WA quickly heat up, it’s important to take extra care to protect your employees from heat stress and the more serious heat stroke.
Heat stress occurs when the body’s fluids are depleted due to increased sweating. This can cause tiredness, irritability, inattention and muscular cramps. The risk of workplace injuries is inevitably increased as a heat-stressed employee’s attention goes from the task at hand to the physical discomfort they’re feeling.
Up to a litre of fluid can be lost every hour in extreme heat so it’s essential that lost fluid is replaced.
Of course, not all employees are the same and they will experience different physical reactions to heat depending on their weight, age, health, other medical conditions and any medications they may be taking.
You can reduce the risk of employees having a heat-related illness by:
- promoting the drinking of cool water frequently
- providing cool places to rest often
- having fans to increase air circulation
- reorganising work schedules so outdoor tasks can be done outside of peak temperatures
- encouraging employees to wear loose clothing
Heat stroke is far more dangerous than heat stress and must be treated immediately by medical staff. The symptoms are the cessation of sweating, high body temperature and hot, dry skin. An affected employee may also appear confused and even lose consciousness.
Cool the person down as quickly as possible while waiting for medical treatment. This can be done by soaking the employee’s clothing and fanning them.
Is it ever okay not to wear PPE?
Short answer: yes, but only when it’s too hot and you’ve explored alternatives.
Annie runs a mobile dog washing business and employs three people. She has trouble recruiting reliable and competent staff, but is very happy with the quality of staff she has now.
Her strategy is to place ads on student noticeboards at universities and in backpacker hostels in the CBD. One of her best workers at the moment is Bridgette from Launceston, who is in Perth on a working sabbatical.
Annie has identified that due to her work being almost exclusively outdoors, this exposes her staff to potentially high levels of exposure to UV rays when washing the dogs.
Annie has supplied each staff member with a uniform comprising a long sleeve polo shirt and a hat, as well as sunscreen.
Bridgette has been with Annie’s business for three months but since the weather has been getting warmer, she has been refusing to wear the polo shirt, hat or sunscreen, insisting that she “likes to get a tan because it never gets this hot in Tassie”.
Annie wants to know what she can do to meet her OSH obligations as an employer but is afraid she’ll lose Bridgette if she orders her to wear the shirt, hat and sunscreen.
Annie has correctly identified a risk to the safety and health of her employees and has provided personal protective equipment to reduce the risk of them suffering sunburn or more serious skin condition as a result of skin exposure.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) must be the last line of defence in terms of control measures used to reduce risk of injury. This means that Annie should be considering other methods of control to reduce her staff’s exposure to the sun during work.
Examples include changing the work roster to reduce hours working in the hottest part of the day, rotation of work tasks to reduce sun exposure or providing a portable gazebo to work under.
If PPE is provided and the employee is directed to wear it, then the employee has a legal obligation to do so. Annie also has a duty to ensure that safety directions are being followed.
As part of the consultative process, Annie and her staff must consider the risks, assess their likely consequences and determine acceptable control measures that will be enforced.
► If you are concerned about heat-related illnesses in your workplace, contact our safety experts for advice and training on the best ways to reduce the risk. Call now on (08) 9365 7415 or firstname.lastname@example.org.