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With South Australian summers being well known for their extreme heat and dryness and damaging levels of ultraviolet radiation for most of the year, we remind employers of their responsibility to manage risks associated with heat stress and overexposure to UV radiation.

A 2016 Skin Health Australia Report (Skin and Cancer Foundation) found that 65 per cent of workers say their employers don’t provide clothing to protect them from the sun and 74 per cent aren’t provided with sunglasses to protect their eyes.

The research follows a May 2016 Safe Work Australia study that found that solar UV radiation is the most common carcinogen faced by 86 per cent of the 459 construction workers surveyed, and only eight per cent, who spend more than four hours a day outside, use all four major controls for preventing solar UV radiation exposure:

  1. apply sunscreen
  2. wear a hat
  3. wear clothes that cover the arms and legs
  4. work in the shade.

Duty holders, principal contractors, builders, labour hire agencies and employers must identify and control solar UV radiation exposure risks and/or heat related hazards, so far as reasonably practicable.

Duty holders should consult, coordinate and cooperate with each other to minimise the risk of thermally stressful situations to workers through a risk management approach.

Stopping work due to heat

The Work Health and Safety laws do not specify a ‘stop work’ temperature. A single ‘stop work’ temperature would not capture the range of factors which make working in heat hazardous, including humidity, air flow, the physical intensity and duration of the work, and whether workers are physically fit and acclimatised to the conditions.

In some workplaces, a heat clause is included in the employment agreements. For workplaces that do not have this clause, PCBU are to follow the WHS laws and provide a safe work environment.

See Safe Work Australia's FAQs for working in heat for further details.

Employer responsibilities

Employers have a duty of care to ensure they are not putting their workers’ health and safety at risk. Employers should be familiar with the Managing the Work Environment and Facilities - Code of Practice.

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, nor does it determine acceptable levels of ultraviolet radiation (UVR) exposure. 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 UVR or increased temperature, the risk of skin damage and heat-related illness must be minimised so far as is reasonably practicable.

Ways to control risk of heat - automate processes, relocate workers to cooler conditions, do not allow workers to work alone, modify targets and work rates, schedule work for cooler parts of the day, review rest schedules.

Some practical suggestions for minimising these risks include:

  • identify hazards associated with working in the heat and UVR exposure
  • plan ahead and ensure all practicable measures for preventing heat illness and overexposure to UVR can be implemented
  • alter work schedules so that work is done on a different day, during cooler times of the day or outside of peak UV times (such as early morning or late afternoon)
  • 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
  • create cool down areas
  • enable workers to take regular breaks or rotate with others where possible to reduce their exposure to UVR and heat sources
  • utilise fans, misters and air-conditioners
  • move workers away from other heat sources in the workplace
  • provide suitable protection against ultra violet radiation UVR, including sun protective clothing (such as collared tops, long sleeved shirts and long trousers) and sun protective hats and/or hat attachments (eg broad brimmed), SPF 30 or higher broad-spectrum water resistant sunscreen and close fitting sunglasses
  • provide training and education opportunities for workers and encourage a positive culture around health and safety
  • encourage workers to keep an eye on each other
  • most importantly, make your controls available to workers and encourage their use.

See Safe Work Australia's Managing the risks of working in heat fact sheet,  Checklist for risk-managing heat in the workplace and the Guide for managing the risks of working in heat for further information.

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, nor does it determine acceptable levels of ultraviolet radiation (UVR) exposure. 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 contribute to the management of risks and 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 wearing a broad brimmed hat, sun protective clothing that cover both arms and legs, and close fitting sunglasses, applying sunscreen 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 Health Safety Representative.

Watch on YouTube: Working in heat: physically demanding work.

Heat illnesses

Know the warning signs

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

Contributing factors

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.

See Safe Work Australia's First aid for heat-related illness for further information.

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 control measures:

  1. Elimination - where possible, move tasks indoors to remove the UVR hazard to a worker.
  2. Engineering controls - provide shaded areas or temporary shade for stationary tasks and breaks. Additional UV protection is still recommended even if working in shaded areas outdoors.
  3. Administrative controls - plan work routines so outdoor tasks are done early in the morning or later in the afternoon when UV levels are lower, move jobs into the shade and train workers about working safely in the sun, and how to identify skin cancer early.
  4. Personal protective equipment - ensure outdoor workers are protected in as many ways as possible including:
    • uniform that covers as much skin as possible (long sleeves, pants, collared shirts)
    • close fitting, wraparound sunglasses that meet Australian Standards or safety glasses that provide good UV protection
    • a broad brimmed, bucket or legionnaire style hat that covers the head, face, neck and ears. Hat attachments are necessary if hard hats are a requirement
    • applying SPF 30 or higher, broad-spectrum, water resistant sunscreen to any remaining exposed skin, 20 minutes prior to going outside, reapplying at least every two hours.

Visit Safe Work Australia's Guide on exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation (UVR) or www.sunsmart.org.au for more information.

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.

The table below shows the total SED received by an outdoor worker during an 8 hour shift (8.00am – 4.00pm) across the year. Regardless of the time of the year, a full day spent outdoors exceeds the recommended limits advised by ARPANSA. It’s important that workers are informed about the risks of working outdoors and provided with tools to manage this risk to protect their health.

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 offer workplaces with education sessions on the effects of UV radiation, early detection of skin cancer, and examples of practical skin protection strategies, specific to outdoor work, to support South Australian businesses in meeting their work health and safety requirements. Cancer Council SA 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.

For more information visit www.sunsmart.org.au.

Additional resources