Australian workers are vulnerable to heat-related illnesses – particularly at this time of year – due to exposure to high UV radiation levels and the world’s worst skin cancer rate.

Working in intense heat over long periods can raise normal body temperature and lead to heat stroke and possible death. Heat stress and fatigue may also impair clear thinking and escalate injury risk.

While postponing or rescheduling work is often not possible, employers can take practical steps to reduce risk.

1. Look out for risks

• Risk levels are intensified if a worker is over 65 and in poor physical condition, on certain medications or not used to hot working conditions.

• Younger workers can be more susceptible, possibly due to physically strenuous tasks, a lack of skills or experience, and reluctance to admit problems.

2. Minimise risks

• Provide first aid information and train staff about working safely in heat and to identify symptoms – and report it immediately.

• If unable to reschedule hot tasks, consider lighter protective clothing and worker rotation and overhead shade cloths.

• Adequate supervision and ample water is crucial – about 200ml every 20 minutes – and regular breaks under shade or in cool rooms.

• Regular meals and snacks help replace salt and electrolytes lost through sweating.

• Outdoor workers require UPF 50+ rated clothing – long-sleeved collared shirts, long pants, wide brim hat – and SPF 30+ sunscreen and sunglasses.

3. Know the symptoms and how to treat them

Heat-related conditions range from cramps, rashes and fatigue to more serious heat exhaustion and potentially fatal heat stroke.

Signs of heat stroke include confusion, seizure and hot dry skin. Call 000 for paramedics and move the worker to a cool location. Strip clothing and douse their body with cold water, applying ice packs or wet cloths.

Heat exhaustion symptoms include vomiting, nausea, irritability, thirst and dizziness. Take a worker to a cool room to sip cold water and splash water on their head, neck and face. If symptoms persist, seek urgent medical assistance.

Less serious but extremely painful are heat cramps – involuntary muscle spasms caused by fluid and salt deficiency from excessive sweating. Treat by consuming water and a snack or sports drink every 20 minutes.

Heat rash develops when pores become blocked and symptoms range from mild blistering to red lumps, often intensely itchy. Treat with prickly heat powder .

4. Keep workplaces cool

Install air conditioning or extra ventilation. Place reflective shields on radiant heat hotspots, insulate hot surfaces and keep floors dry.

5. Understand your responsibilities

Managing the risk of heat-related illness is a legal requirement. Assessment of potential health hazards and protective measures must involve affected workers and health and safety reps.

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