It gets hot in Australia – really hot! It can be dry heat, which is common in inland regions away from the coast, or it could be the humid heat of the lush tropics of Far North Qld and the Northern Territory. Temperatures can reach 45o C for dry heat, and 40 oC in humid areas –however lower temperatures can still be extremely hazardous to your health.
Any type of heat can be fatal for those not acclimatised or who don’t take the proper precautions.
Do not underestimate the heat of an Australian summer – especially when doing farm work outside. It is vital that you take all the necessary precautions to ensure you don’t suffer a heat-related incident.
Heat stress – what is it?
Heat stress occurs when the body cannot get rid of excess heat. When this happens, the body’s core temperature rises and the heart rate increases.
A heat related illness can result from working outside in sunshine, doing heavy or repetitive manual work, working in packing or machinery sheds or other areas of high humidity, and/or wearing high levels of personal protective equipment – eg chemical/hazmat suits.
Your employer should provide information on how to manage working in hot weather and provide water, shade and appropriate breaks during the hottest part of the day.
Some of the effects of excessive heat include:
Also known as prickly heat, is a skin irritation caused by sweat that does not evaporate from the skin. Heat rash is the most common problem in hot work environments.
- Clusters of red bumps on skin
- Often appears on neck, upper chest, folds of skin
- Try to work in a cooler, less humid environment when possible
- Keep the affected area dry
Are caused by the loss of body salts and fluid during sweating. Low salt levels in muscles cause painful cramps. Tired muscles—those used for performing the work—are usually the ones most affected by cramps. Cramps may occur during or after working hours.
- Muscle spasms
- Rest in a shady, cool area
- Drink water or other cool beverages
- Wait a few hours before returning to strenuous work
- Seek medical attention if cramps don’t go away
Is the body’s response to loss of water and salt from heavy sweating.
- Cool, moist skin, heavy sweating
- Headache, nausea or vomiting, dizziness, light headedness
- Rapid heart beat
- Sit or lie down in a cool, shady area
- Have plenty of water or other cool beverages to drink
- Call 000 if signs or symptoms worsen or do not improve within 60 minutes.
- Do not return to work that day
The most serious form of heat-related illness happens when the body becomes unable to regulate its core temperature. Sweating stops and the body can no longer rid itself of excess heat.
- Confusion, fainting, seizures
- Excessive sweating or red, hot, dry skin
- Very high body temperature
First Aid while you wait:
- Move to a shady, cool area
- Loosen clothing, remove outer clothing
- Get someone to fan air on you and if possible place cold packs in armpits
- Wet yourself with cool water
- Drink fluids (preferably water) as soon as possible in SMALL sips
Untreated, heat exhaustion can lead to heatstroke, a life-threatening condition that occurs when your core body temperature reaches 104 F (40 C) or higher. Heatstroke requires immediate medical attention to prevent permanent damage to the brain and other vital organs that can result in death.
You can take a number of steps to prevent heat-related illnesses. When the temperatures climb, remember to:
- Wear loose fitting, lightweight clothing.
- Protect against sunburn. Apply sunscreen generously, and reapply every two hours — or more often if you’re swimming or sweating.
- Drink plenty of fluids. Staying hydrated will help your body sweat and maintain a normal body temperature.
- Take it easy during the hottest parts of the day. If you can’t avoid strenuous activity in hot weather, drink lots of fluids and rest frequently in a cool spot.
- Get acclimated. Limit time spent working in heat until you’re conditioned to it.
- Be extra careful if you’re at increased risk. If you take medications or have a condition that increases your risk of heat-related problems, avoid the heat and act quickly if you notice symptoms of overheating.
Heat stress is like any other safety issue at work, it can be very dangerous and has recently killed several farm workers in Australia. Treat it with the respect it deserves and follow the rules – that’s the cool thing to do!
Guide for managing the risks of working in heat – Safework Australia
Workers’ Guide to Heat Stress (Michigan Uni)