Asia-Pacific J Publ Health. 2011;23(2 Supp):14S-26S
The rapid rise in extreme heat events in Australia recently is already taking a health toll. Climate change scenarios predict increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme heat events in the future, and population health may be significantly compromised for people who cannot reduce their heat exposure. Exposure to extreme heat presents a health hazard to all who are physically active, particularly outdoor workers and indoor workers with minimal access to cooling systems while working. At air temperatures close to (or beyond) the core body temperature of 37°C, body cooling via sweating is essential, and this mechanism is hampered by high air humidity. Heat exposure among elite athletes and the military has been investigated, whereas the impacts on workers remain largely unexplored, particularly in relation to future climate change. Workers span all age groups and diverse levels of fitness and health status, including people with higher than "normal" sensitivity to heat. In a hotter world, workers are likely to experience more heat stress and find it increasingly difficult to maintain productivity. Modeling of future climate change in Australia shows a substantial increase in the number of very hot days (>35°C) across the country. In this article, the authors characterize the health risks associated with heat exposure on working people and discuss future exposure risks as temperatures rise. Progress toward developing occupational health and safety guidelines for heat in Australia are summarized.