Australian Workplaces Unprepared for Rising Heat Stress in Light of Climate Change

Last Summer’s devastating Black Summer bushfires exposed the under-preparedness of Australian workplaces to the serious health and safety risks of heat stress for many workers across Australia.

Heading in to next Summer season, new research published today by the Centre for Future Work, outlines why working in extreme heat is a growing and urgent issue for workers, and what can be done by Governments and workplaces to mitigate these risks.

Key findings:

  • Heat stress poses serious health and safety risks for many workers across Australia, and Australia must act on the causes of rising temperatures and changing weather patterns.
  • Four key groups of workers are at high risk of heat stress:
    • Workers who work inside, in environments with poor climate control, or whose work requires them to be exposed to heat and humidity;
    • Outdoor workers, especially those who are weather-exposed;
    • Workers moving between different climates as part of their work (i.e., moving between extreme heat and cold); and
    • Workers whose roles expose them to situational extreme heat, such as emergency workers and firefighters.
  • Current labour protections, including health and safety laws, are inadequate.
    • Many workers say that OHS policies might appear to offer protection, but in practice it is simply not the case.
    • Workers say that employers do not want work to stop even when heat stress risk is very high, and that employers prioritise productivity over worker health and safety.
    • The hazardous heatwaves, air quality, and bushfire smoke over the recent Black Summer has emphasised the inadequacy of current OHS regulations.
  • The conditions of a person’s employment fundamentally shape their experience of heat stress. Workers who are employed casually, who work in labour hire arrangements, or who are gig workers, often have less capacity to take action on the effects of heat stress.
  • Recommendations include:
    • The Australian Federal and State Governments must urgently review the management of the current and likely impacts of climate change for workers, and develop national and state-based regulatory frameworks that provide strong protection in relation to heat stress and bushfire smoke.
    • Governments and employers must be required to provide adequate resourcing for at-risk workers.
    • Policymakers should strengthen current laws to ensure workers do not lose income when unable to work due to heat stress.

“Last year’s devastating Black Summer bushfires highlighted that for many workers across Australia, appropriate policies and plans are not always in place to ensure that they are protected from dangerous heat stress related conditions that could cause illness or injury to themselves or others,” said Dr. Elizabeth Humphrys, associate at the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work and co-author of the report.

“Workers need to be afforded greater protections to ensure their health and safety are paramount in extreme heat conditions. Our research shows that current workplace conditions are woefully inadequate, while climate change will only serve to make conditions worse.

“To protect workers and the wider community, not only must policymakers act to mitigate the impacts of heat stress, but they must also act on the causes of the climate heating, itself.”

The report ‘Heat Stress and Work in the Era of Climate Change: What We Know, and What We Need to Learn’ by Dr. Elizabeth Humphrys, Freya Newman and Professor James Goodman, is available here.

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