Climate Change and Occupational Heat Stress: Emerging risks in work injury claims

09 September 2021

The release of the IPCC’s latest report on 6 August 2021 reminds us that climate change will continue to affect the way we live in the foreseeable future. As Australia continues to experience record heatwaves, workers in certain industries are likely to become more susceptible to experiencing occupational heat stress. There is now increasing evidence that such heat stress is strongly associated with work injuries as an indirect effect of heat exposure,1 with important implications for employers in affected industries.

What are the risks?

Prolonged exposure to heat can increase the risk of work-related injuries and illnesses, both direct and indirect. Heat stress can directly lead to heat-related injuries and illnesses such as heat cramps, fatigue, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. However, it can also lead to fatigue, loss of concentration, lower vigilance, reduced psychomotor performance (due to slippery hands or tools being too hot to handle safely), impaired vision from sweating, and reduced use of personal protective equipment (PPE).2 These factors indirectly compound the risks of more commonly seen work injuries – slips, trips, and falls, wounds, lacerations and amputations, burns, and fractures.3


Where are these risks most likely to arise?

The key factors linked to experiencing occupational heat stress include being a male worker aged under 34 years old, an apprentice or trainee, a labourer, a tradesperson, a labour hire worker, or a worker in the industrial sector whose work involves the operation of plant, machinery, vehicles, and equipment.5 One study found that heat-related occupational risks arose in a plethora of indoor work environments, some less obvious, including stores, kitchens, sheds, restaurants, factories, vehicles, service stations, and warehouses.6

By industry, the risks relating to heat stress are most likely to arise in the following:7

  • Agricultural sector – agriculture, forestry, and fishing;
  • Industrial sector – construction, manufacturing, transport, logistics, and warehousing; and
  • Utilities sector – electricity, gas, water, and waste services.

Considering that these industries comprise 42.6% of all serious work injury claims,8 the increasing prevalence of heat stress will pose significant implications for all businesses operating in these sectors.

Palace v RCR O’Donnell Griffin Pty Ltd (in liq) [2021] QCA 137

A recent case of the Queensland Court of Appeal provides an illustrative example of the above risk factors. The appellant was employed as an electrician under a labour hire arrangement. One summer’s day, the appellant was installing a solar panel when he began to feel weak and lightheaded, his speech becoming slow and impaired.9 His colleagues attempted to administer first aid by applying a cold wet cloth to his head and chest, before deciding to transport him to another site in an air-conditioned vehicle.

As the journey progressed, the appellant began to feel nauseous and asked that the vehicle be stopped. As the appellant attempted to exit the car, he lost all strength and fell from the vehicle. The two people attending him then attempted to put him back into the vehicle, but dropped the appellant two or three times, causing soft tissue injuries to his knees and wrists.

The appellant relied on an expert liability report produced by an expert specialising in heat stress exposures in the mining, refining, and smelting industries.10 The expert made reference to the meteorological data on the day of the incident, which suggested high likelihood of heat-induced illness, and the inadequate first aid response.11 The Court found that the evidence arguably supported the appellant’s allegations as to duty, breach of duty, and foreseeability, and ultimately allowed the appeal.

What measures can be put in place to manage these risks?

In light of these risks, it is recommended that employers establish measures to effectively manage risks relating to heat stress. Safe Work Australia has published guidance on managing the risks of working in heat and prolonged exposure to the sun. Similar guidance has also been published by Safe Work NSW. Practical measures that employers can put in place include those relating to:

  • Equipment  – using automated equipment, plant, or machinery to access hot locations and reduce manual labour;
  • Redesigning work tasks  – for example, minimising physically demanding tasks, scheduling strenuous tasks during cooler times of the day, adjusting work intensity, and establishing work-rest schedules;
  • Training  – training workers on heat-related illness and preventative measures;
  • Working environment  – installation of cooling systems such as air-conditioning, insulation, air flow, shaded areas, heat shields, bubblers, and warning signs.

For a detailed example of a heat stress management policy, contested before the former Australian Industrial Relations Commission, see Melbourne City Council v Australian Municipal, Administrative, Clerical and Services Union [2007] AIRC 116.

As climate change results in higher average temperatures, employers – particularly those in high risk industries – would be well advised to critically reflect on how heat stress may be affecting their workplace. Employers should assess the risk of heat stress arising from their work practices and where appropriate design policies to manage such risk. This will ensure that employers can fulfil their duty to their employees.

This article was written by Joanna Apostolopoulos, Partner, Jenne Tzavaras, Partner and Grace Huang, Law Graduate.

1 Varghese, Blesson M., Alana Hansen, Peng Bi, and Dino Pisaniello. “Are workers at risk of occupational injuries due to heat exposure? A comprehensive literature review.” Safety science 110 (2018): 380-392, 380; Hansen, Alana, Dino Pisaniello, Blesson Varghese, Shelley Rowett, Scott Hanson-Easey, Peng Bi, and Monika Nitschke. “What can we learn about workplace heat stress management from a safety regulator complaints database?.” International journal of environmental research and public health 15, no. 3 (2018): 459, 461. For further reading, see this article published in The Conversation on 25 January 2021.
2 Varghese et al (n 1).
3 Varghese et al (n 1) 388.
4 Varghese et al (n 1) Figure 4: Schematic illustration of factors leading to occupational heat stress, heat strain, illness and injuries.
5 Varghese, Blesson M., Adrian G. Barnett, Alana L. Hansen, Peng Bi, John Nairn, Shelley Rowett, Monika Nitschke et al. “Characterising the impact of heatwaves on work-related injuries and illnesses in three Australian cities using a standard heatwave definition-Excess Heat Factor (EHF).” Journal of exposure science & environmental epidemiology 29, no. 6 (2019): 821-830.
6 Hansen, Alana, Dino Pisaniello, Blesson Varghese, Shelley Rowett, Scott Hanson-Easey, Peng Bi, and Monika Nitschke. “What can we learn about workplace heat stress management from a safety regulator complaints database?.” International journal of environmental research and public health 15, no. 3 (2018): 459.
7 Varghese et al (n 1) 380; Rameezdeen, Rameez, and Abbas Elmualim. “The impact of heat waves on occurrence and severity of construction accidents.” International journal of environmental research and public health 14, no. 1 (2017): 70; Acharya, Payel, Bethany Boggess, and Kai Zhang. “Assessing heat stress and health among construction workers in a changing climate: a review.” International journal of environmental research and public health 15, no. 2 (2018): 247.
8 Accounting for: Construction; Manufacturing; Transport, postal and warehousing; Wholesale trade; Agriculture, forestry and fishing; Mining; Electricity, gas, water and waste services: Safe Work Australia, Australian Workers Compensation Statistics 2018-19, Table 6.
9 Palace v RCR O’Donnell Griffin Pty Ltd (in liq) [2021] QCA 137 [14]-[20].
10 Palace v RCR O’Donnell Griffin Pty Ltd (in liq) [2021] QCA 137 [26]-[27].
11 Palace v RCR O’Donnell Griffin Pty Ltd (in liq) [2021] QCA 137 [27].

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