Heat Stress and Work in the Era of Climate Change

What We Know, and What We Need to Learn
by Elizabeth Humphrys, Freya Newman and James Goodman

New research has confirmed that climate change is contributing to the growing problem of heat stress in a wide range of Australian workplaces.

This report provides first-hand accounts of dangerous levels of heat stress experienced in a range of occupations – including construction, outdoor maintenance work, and food delivery riders.

The report, by a team of authors based at the Climate Justice Research Centre at UTS in Sydney, interviewed workers and trade union officials in several industries, and confirmed that working in excess heat is becoming a more common occupational health and safety risk. The report documents the negative effects of excess heat on physical health, mental alertness, and stress. It also compiled an inventory of union initiatives and workplace best practices for reducing and manage the risks of heat stress.

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 priorise 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.”

“Our research shows that while existing OHS rules are supposed to protect workers against heat stress in theory, in practice those standards are not adequate, and they are poorly enforced.”

“Many workers say that employers do not want work to stop even when heat stress is very high, and that employers prioritise productivity over workers’ health.”

“Improving workplace practices for identifying and managing heat stress, and empowering workers to refuse work under unsafe heat conditions, must be urgent priorities for employers, trade unions, and regulators.”

Full report