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Heat & UV exposure

With South Australian summers being well known for their extreme heat and dryness, we remind employers of their responsibility to manage risks associated with heat stress and solar UV radiation.

Employer responsibilities

Employers (duty holders) have a duty of care to ensure they are not putting their workers’ health and safety at risk.

Unless it is specified in workplace employment agreements, the work health and safety legislation does not set temperatures at which a worker may be sent home. Each workplace environment is different, and the onus is on the employer to manage any risks, in consultation with their workers. If it is not possible to eliminate exposure to increased temperature, the risk of heat-related illness must be minimised so far as is reasonably practicable.

Some practical suggestions for minimising heat risks include:

  • identify hazards associated with working in the heat and UV radiation exposure
  • plan ahead and ensure all practicable measures for preventing heat illness and UV radiation exposure can be implemented
  • alter work schedules so that work is done on a different day or during cooler times of the day
  • provide cool drinking water, which is close to the work area to encourage hydration
  • ensure all workers are aware of heat stress symptoms so they can monitor themselves and their workmates
  • provide workers with access to shelter, additional rest breaks and encourage people to stay hydrated
  • move work indoors if possible or create cool down areas
  • enable workers to take regular breaks or rotate with others where possible
  • utilise fans, misters and air-conditioners
  • move workers away from other heat sources in the workplace
  • provide suitable protection against ultra violet radiation, including SPF 30 or higher broad-spectrum water resistant sunscreen, light weight breathable long sleeves, long trousers and hats.
  • provide training on being sun smart and encourage workers to keep an eye on each other
  • most importantly, make your controls available to workers and encourage their use. 

Worker responsibilities

Unless it is specified in workplace employment agreements, the work health and safety legislation does not set temperatures at which a worker may be sent home. Each workplace environment is different, and the onus is on the employer to manage any risks, in consultation with their workers.

Workers have a responsibility to take care of their own health and should:

  • follow all reasonable instructions from their employer
  • drink enough water to remain hydrated
  • check their urine colour as a darker colour can be an indication of dehydration ( see our Hydration chart for further information)
  • look after their work colleagues, recognise symptoms of heat related illness and know when to seek medical treatment
  • take responsibility for the health of their skin by applying sunscreen, wearing a hat, wearing clothes that cover both arms and legs, and working in the shade where possible
  • be role models and encourage co-workers to protect their skin and eyes from UV radiation
  • raise any work health and safety concerns with your employer or HSR.

Heat illnesses

View our warning signs infographic to easily identify symptoms of heat illnesses.

Heat related illness

Heat-related illness is very serious and can be fatal, but most importantly, is preventable. Heat illnesses occur when your body absorbs more heat from your environment than you can physically get rid of through perspiration or other cooling mechanisms. Some reasons why workers may experience heat-related illness are:

  • if they are exposed to direct sunlight, especially during the hottest parts of the day with no shade relief
  • if they are carrying out strenuous tasks or work for sustained long periods in hot conditions
  • if they are exposed to reflected heat from construction materials, polished aluminium and glass, or heat build-up in roads and concrete structures
  • if they are exposed to additional heat (from machinery).

Other factors that may contribute to heat-related problems at work include:

  • inadequate cooling off or rest periods and insufficient water consumption
  • climatic conditions (low air movement, high humidity, high air temperature and high radiant heat)
  • inappropriate clothing (non-breathable materials)
  • individual medication that may affect the body’s temperature regulation
  • things that may cause dehydration such as poor diet, vomiting, diarrhoea or excessive alcohol and caffeine consumption
  • individual medical conditions such as heart problems, diabetes and hypertension
  • increasing age, poor general physical fitness or being overweight
  • new workers that are not acclimatised or young workers who underestimate risks
  • workers not recognising symptoms of heat related illness.

There are a range of medical conditions that can arise when the body is unable to cope properly with working in the heat. Heat illness can occur if the worker starts:

  • vomiting or feels nauseous
  • feeling dizzy or weak
  • feeling clumsy, light headed and/or faints. 

Heat stroke

Heat stroke is perhaps the most serious temperature-related illness as it is life-threatening and requires immediate first aid and medical attention. Signs and symptoms to look out for include:

  • a high body temperature of 40°C
  • flushed and dry skin
  • a pounding, rapid pulse.

Heat stress

Heat stress can be caused by physical exertion outdoors in hot weather or by working in hot and cramped work areas that have poor ventilation. Symptoms to be on the lookout include:

  • pale, cool, clammy skin
  • rapid breathing and shortness of breath
  • a rapid or weak pulse.

Heat discomfort

The more common outcome of living in a hot country like Australia is to experience heat discomfort. This is what many people feel when it is hot, although, unlike heat illness and stroke, it is not a medical condition and isn’t considered a risk to health.

Those who work in office-type environments or do minimal physical work are unlikely to suffer from a heat illness. What they experience as a result of higher temperature and increased humidity is most likely heat discomfort.

There are several simple solutions that office environments and other indoor areas can do to properly manage heat discomfort such as:

  • increasing air movement
  • providing access to cool water
  • providing air conditioning (if practical)
  • wearing suitable light and loose fitting clothing.

The following general conditions are considered to be comfortable for people working indoors and doing light work and include:

  • keeping the air temperature between 23°C and 26°C
  • maintaining a relative humidity of 30 to 60 percent. 

Plan ahead and ensure all necessary measures for preventing heat illnesses can be implemented when hot weather is predicted. Doing so will ensure the safety and well-being of your workers.

UV radiation

UV radiation is different to infrared radiation (heat), therefore overexposure to UV needs to be assessed and managed independently to heat in the workplace.

UV radiation and skin cancer

People who spend all or part of the day regularly working outdoors are at increased risk of skin cancer. This is because the sun’s UV radiation is a major cause of skin cancer, including melanoma. All skin tones can be damaged by exposure to UV radiation and this damage is permanent, irreversible and increases with each exposure.

Outdoor workers receive up to 10 times more solar UV exposure than those who work indoors. Every year in Australia, it’s estimated that over 200 melanomas and 34,000 other skin cancers are caused by UV damage in the workplace.

Reducing the risk of overexposure to UV

Solar UV radiation must be managed throughout the year by implementing a combination of the following measures:

  1. Apply SPF30 or higher broad-spectrum water resistant sunscreen 20 minutes prior to going outside and reapply at least every two hours
  2. Wear a hat and wrap-around sunglasses that meet Australian Standards or safety glasses that provide good UV protection
  3. Wear clothes that cover the arms and legs
  4. Work in the shade whenever possible and plan work routines so outdoor tasks are done early in the morning or later in the afternoon when UV levels are lower.

Quantifying UV exposure

UV radiation cannot be seen or felt, therefore managing the risk relies on regularly monitoring UV information. UV radiation is quantified on a UV Index in UV doses, known as a standard erythemal dose (SED).

Generally when the UV Index is 3 and above, sun protection is required as the amount of UV radiation present is high enough to damage unprotected skin. However, because UV-induced skin damage is cumulative, it is recommended that outdoor workers use sun protection year round, even when the UV index is below 3. Daily UV levels and sun protection times are available from the Bureau of Meteorology and via the free BOM Weather and SunSmart apps for Android and iPhone.

Exposure to one SED per day is considered safe for most people and UV protection is recommended if anticipating exposure to one or more SEDs on any day. Any SEDs received, and the accompanying skin damage, are cumulative and build up over the years, increasing the risk of skin cancer.

Total SED received if working an 8-hour shift outdoors (8.00am to 4.00pm)

Month Max UV Index Total SED
January 14.7 64
April 7.3 29
July 2.2 10
October 7.3 27

*Data taken on first day of each month in 2017

Cancer Council SA can provide an education session designed to educate your workers about the effects of UV radiation exposure, skin cancer prevention and early detection. They can:

  • present information to WHS staff and management about developing/implementing sun protection policy and practice in the workplace
  • present education sessions to outdoor workers about UV radiation, implementing sun protection and early detection of skin cancer.

Book your session by completing an expression of interest form, emailing sunsmart [at] or calling them on 8291 4147.

Further information