Health Prom Internat, 05/2013
This exploratory study describes the experiences arising from exposure to extreme summer heat, and the related health protection and promotion issues for working people in Australia. Twenty key informants representing different industry types and occupational groups or activities in Australia provided semi-structured interviews concerning: (i) perceptions of workplace heat exposure in the industry they represented, (ii) reported impacts on health and productivity, as well as (iii) actions taken to reduce exposure or effects of environmental heat exposure. All interviewees reported that excessive heat exposure presents a significant challenge for their industry or activity. People working in physically demanding jobs in temperatures>35°C frequently develop symptoms, and working beyond heat tolerance is common. To avoid potentially dangerous health impacts they must either slow down or change their work habits. Such health-preserving actions result in lost work capacity. Approximately one-third of baseline work productivity can be lost in physically demanding jobs when working at 40°C. Employers and workers consider that heat exposure is a 'natural hazard' in Australia that cannot easily be avoided and so must be accommodated or managed. Among participants in this study, the locus of responsibility for coping with heat lay with the individual, rather than the employer. Heat exposure during Australian summers commonly results in adverse health effects and productivity losses, although quantification studies are lacking. Lack of understanding of the hazardous nature of heat exposure exacerbates the serious risk of heat stress, as entrenched attitudinal barriers hamper amelioration or effective management of this increasing occupational health threat. Educational programmes and workplace heat guidelines are required. Without intervention, climate change in hot countries, such as Australia, can be expected to further exacerbate heat-related burden of disease and loss of productivity in many jobs. In light of projected continued global warming, and associated increase in heat waves, more attention needs to be given to environmental heat as a human health hazard in the Occupational Health and Safety arena. Without adoption of effective heat protective strategies economic output and fitness levels will diminish. Health protection and promotion activities should include strategies to reduce heat exposure, limit exposure duration, ensure access to hydration, and promote acclimatization and fitness programmes, and reorientate attitudes towards working in the heat.