Controlling exposure to extreme heat and UVR in outdoor work environments

Controlling exposure to extreme heat and UVR in outdoor work environments

Working outdoors and working in extreme heat are known hazards for workers by exposing them to the risks of heat-related illness and ultra-violet radiation (UVR) – both of which can be fatal.

Heat-related illness describes a range of progressive heat-related conditions that happen when the body’s normal sweating response cannot cool the body down enough to maintain a healthy temperature. The more extreme the heat and humidity, the higher the risk is of serious illness or injury.

Ultraviolet radiation (UVR) from the sun is not related to temperature – it can’t be seen or felt. UVR is a known carcinogen and is the cause of 95% of skin cancers in Australia.

UVR levels in NSW are high enough to damage unprotected skin for at least 10 months of the year (i.e. UV levels of 3 and above).

Recent climate data shows that workers are now exposed to hotter working environments for longer periods and these more frequent, longer heatwaves may introduce new hazards as well as affect the control options available.

Employers, businesses and other PCBUs have the primary duty of care to ensure the health and safety of workers – regardless of whether they are full-time, part-time, casual, shift workers, labour-hire workers, contractors – or ‘others’ (eg. volunteers, visitors, etc) in the workplace, so far as is reasonably practicable.

You must use the risk management framework to manage any workplace health and safety risks and consult with workers and/or their HSRs at every stage of the process. You must always try to eliminate all identified hazards and their associated risks – including working outdoors (exposure to UVR) and in extreme heat – so far as is reasonably practicable.

Then you must minimise the remaining risks, so far as is reasonably practicable, following the hierarchy of controls –from top to bottom (ie: focus on the higher level controls first).

Effective control starts with recognising all potential sources of risk. Usually, a combination of controls is needed to get the best results and any control measures must be determined in consultation with workers and/or their HSRs.

Where there are a number of different businesses who may have workers onsite, always consult with all relevant parties – it’s more likely that suitable, long term solutions to UV radiation and extreme heat problems can be found when everyone works together.

We recommend a workplace heat and UVR management plan is developed and implemented, in consultation with workers and/or their HSRs, to effectively manage risks of exposure to extreme heat and/or UV radiation in outdoor workplaces across NSW.

The plan should include:

  • suitable systems to undertake regular workplace environmental risk indicator monitoring (such as temperature, humidity, wind speed and exposure to UVR
  • designated person/s responsible for monitoring environmental conditions, including the daily UV Index and times of the day that sun protection against exposure to UVR must be used by workers
  • designated person/s responsible for monitoring access to – and the use and application of – sun safe clothing, hats, sunglasses and sunscreen when UV levels are 3 and above and/or extreme heat days are forecast, and
  • identify situations where formal workplace heat stress assessments of extreme heat conditions (measuring both environmental and personal factors by an occupational hygienist with skills in assessing thermal conditions and air quality) will be necessary.

In some circumstances, during the consultation process with workers, agreement may be reached on specific parameters for extreme heat and other conditions when work will be stopped to eliminate the risk of workers being exposed. All agreed parameters should be included into your workplace heat management plan.

Control measures to consider include:

Eliminate the hazard

  • where possible, relocate outdoor work so it is done in a covered, well ventilated building/structure that is not exposed to direct sun or heat generating equipment. For example: pre-cast slabs, trusses etc can be made in an air-conditioned factory and then assembled on site later
  • use drones, remote sensors or other technology to avoid the need for workers to be exposed to UVR and extremes of heat, to work alone or remotely, eg;
    • monitor agriculture, crops, livestock, fences and dams remotely
    • monitor and identify problems in the infrastructure systems of public utility companies (gas, electricity and water suppliers).

Isolate the risk

  • start work on the shady side of the building, and follow the shade around the building as the day progresses
  • locate heat generating plant and equipment away from workers to limit exposure to radiant heat
  • enclose or insulate heat generating plant and equipment to reduce radiant heat
  • place shields, barriers, covers or cladding to reduce radiant and reflective heat spots, such as unshaded outdoor cement areas; light-coloured walls, a body of water, roof surface, etc.

Engineering controls

  • provide suitable technology (eg: apps; online resources) and other tools:
    • to help overcome the hazards faced by isolated and/or solitary workers
    • to assist workers to monitor a colleague working alone or remotely
    • to monitor the work environment
  • provide an air-conditioned shed for rest breaks (near the areas where work is being done)
  • provide screens, umbrellas, canopies or awnings over sections of the site to create shade where work is being carried out
  • increase air movement and remove heated air using evaporative coolers or fans
  • use chiller units, in extreme cases, to relieve air temperature and humidity, eg: when working in confined spaces, such as enclosed roof spaces, under floor spaces; etc
  • provide suitable communication systems that function in black spots, and remote and isolated areas, eg: mobile telephone, satellite phone, personal duress alarm, emergency beacon
  • provide mechanical equipment to reduce the need for strenuous physical work.

Administrative controls

Administrative controls should only be used to provide a systematic framework to support the higher controls that you have been implemented.

Administrative actions include to:

  • plan and/or reschedule work routines so outdoor work tasks are done:
    • early in the morning or later in the afternoon, when the temperature and UVR levels may be lower
    • indoors or in shaded areas during the times of the day when the temperature and UVR levels are highest
    • during cooler times of the year
  • provide easy access to lots of cool drinking water for workers, free of charge and available to drink at all times (not just during breaks). Locate it near each work area, encourage workers to drink frequently and not wait until they are thirsty
  • monitor workplace environmental conditions, particularly during summer and heatwave weather. This will help identify and assess the risks of exposure to extreme heat and UVR, as well as monitor the effectiveness of the controls you currently have in place. Where possible, place the read-out so it is easily visible to all staff
  • make provision for first aid treatment and emergency medical assistance. Ensure the first aid room is air-conditioned, where relevant
  • provide regular rest breaks - particularly when the work is very physical. The frequency and length of the break should be increased if the conditions become hotter and/or more humid – up to 30 minutes break every hour, in a cooler area, to help the body cool off
  • implement an effective ‘buddy system’ where workers check each other frequently to ensure they are:
    • drinking enough water – a small cup (200ml) of water every 15 – 20 minutes
    • eating regular meals and snacks
    • taking appropriate breaks, and
    • are not showing signs of heat-related illness
  • provide access to crushed ice (to ingest and for use as ice towel) where possible
  • organise work to minimise physically demanding tasks, eg. conduct work at ground level to minimise climbing up and down stairs or ladders; share strenuous tasks and unavoidable heavier jobs between more workers
  • ensure the work is paced to meet the conditions. Modify targets and work rates where necessary to ease workloads, reduce exposure, as well as physical exertion. Where possible, allow workers to self-pace (set their own work rate) so they are comfortable
  • ensure workers are acclimatised (used to working in the heat) and not taking medication that will affect their ability to cope with extreme heat. Ease new workers – or those returning after more than a week’s leave – into a hot workplace gradually, allocate extra breaks and slowly increase their workload
  • arrange for more workers to do the job
  • increase worker rotation so the same workers are not always exposed to extreme heat and/or UVR
  • reduce the length of shifts. Allow some workers – particularly workers who may be at greater risk  – to leave work early if possible
  • provide cooling vests for workers to wear in extreme situations
  • download the Cancer Council SunSmart app to identify the hours each workday when workers must use sun protection against exposure to hazardous UV levels
  • ensure uniforms are layered, made of breathable fabric that is suitable for the environment and the task. Modify designs, fabrics and/or clothing items to improve suitability of clothing for conditions if necessary
  • ensure required dress codes are flexible so workers can adapt their clothing in extreme heat conditions (eg: wear lightweight, sun safe clothing; suitable shorts and/or skirts; not be required to wear jackets or ties; etc)
  • implement suitable policies and procedures that:
    • ensure a worker with medically-ordered work restrictions can be accommodated, so far as is reasonably practicable
    • ensure appropriate number/s of trained first aiders who know how to deal with heat-related illness are rostered on all shifts
    • manage emergency situations, such as a heat-related illness incident
    • ensure all plant and equipment are regularly inspected, serviced and maintained, eg: air-con in site sheds, any evaporative coolers and fans for use (so they do not break down in the middle of a heat wave); all heat generating equipment (to ensure they are not producing increased levels of heat)
    • conduct workplace inspections at different times of the day to evaluate heat hazards, such as temperature, humidity, work pace, etc
    • where relevant, discuss with your workers and/or HSRs about what personal clothing should be worn underneath any overalls or other protective clothing (as the type and number of extra layers can contribute to a worker being exposed to heat-related illness).
  • implement effective communication procedures, such as:
    • regular contact with staff working alone or in remote and isolated locations
    • a movement itinerary for mobile workers with regular “location to base” checks
    • a means of tracking a worker if they do not return when scheduled.
  • provide suitable supervision of all workers. If they must work alone, monitor them and ensure they can easily call for help
  • establish work-rest schedules and an acclimatisation program, when indicated by a formal workplace heat stress assessment.

Suitable information and training must be provided to all workers – regardless of whether they are full time, part-time or casual workers; shift workers; labour-hire workers; or contractors. Ensure the information and training is understood by all workers – including those from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds. The training content should detail:

  • what the heat management plan is for hot days
  • designated person/s responsible for monitoring heat and humidity, especially when extreme heat days are forecast
  • how to identify UVR and heat hazards in the workplace
  • how to work safely in the sun and in heat
  • how to recognise warning signs and symptoms of sunburn and heat-related illness in themselves or their co-workers; how to respond to them; and when to call for assistance
  • how to avoid experiencing sunburn and heat-related illness
  • what to do in an emergency, such as a worker experiencing severe sunburn or heat-related illness
  • how to report incidents involving severe sunburn or heat-related illness
  • factors that can increase the risk of a worker being exposed to heat-related illness (eg. general health, physical fitness, pregnancy, use of some medications, etc.) and ways they can help to avoid developing heat-related illness
  • not to replace drinking water with energy drinks, soft drinks or coffee
  • the control measures you have in place to manage outdoor heat and UVR risks
  • how to use and wear PPE correctly and how to dress for hot conditions. Include any restrictions on personal clothing that can be worn underneath protective clothing, eg. overalls
  • to consult with their doctor if they have any health concerns.

Personal protective equipment (PPE)    

PPE is the last and least effective control in the hierarchy and should only be used to manage any risk that is leftover after all higher-level controls have been implemented, so far as is reasonably practicable.

Wearing or using different types of PPE does not eliminate or minimise the any risk – it acts only as a barrier between the risk and the worker.

Workers who need to wear and/or carry PPE in hot outdoor work environments can be at greater risk of exposure to heat-related illness because it can increase the body’s heat load. Wearing protective clothing (such as aprons and overalls) can also increase the risk of workers being exposed to heat-related illness. Where relevant, ensure a workplace policy is developed in consultation with workers and/or their HSRs stating what personal clothing can be worn underneath relevant items of protective clothing and/or PPE, so it doesn’t increase the risk.

Essential PPE for outdoor workers includes:

  • sun safe clothing which is:
    • a shirt with a collar and long-sleeves, and
    • trousers or long shorts
  • The clothing should be:
    • comfortable to wear
    • task-specific
    • made of suitable (UPF) 50+ rated material / fabric
  • other sun safe items, such as:
    • a broad-brimmed, bucket or legionnaires hat
    • at least SPF 30+ broad spectrum sunscreen and lip balm, and
    • wraparound sunglasses

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