The Covid-19 pandemic and the necessity of wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) has increased the effects of heat stress on workers in a range of low-wage industries, a new report has found.
Researchers from University of Technology’s Climate Justice Research Centre surveyed 795 workers nationally about their experiences working in and managing high heat, including during the 2019-2020 bushfires and since the onset of the pandemic.
The research, conducted independently for the United Workers Union, canvassed teacher’s aides, machine operators, warehouse workers, home carers, cleaners, firefighters, paramedics, security and custodial workers and more.
Surveyed workers reported experiencing or witnessing a range of incidents at work due to high heat, including excessive sweating, headaches and stress. Some also reported fainting, seizures, hospitalisation, and fatalities. More than half of those surveyed said they had never been warned about the risks relating to heat stress.
The experience of heat stress greatly depended on the conditions of employment, the researchers found, with workers in casual, labour hire, on-demand and temporary migrant working arrangements most at risk.
Workers using PPE reported experienced higher than usual levels of heat, fatigue, sweating, skin rashes, and difficulty breathing. They described a full shift in PPE as “debilitating” and “stifling”, which was compounded by higher workloads of increasing intensity, especially for cleaners and healthcare personnel.
Cleaners working in education, health and other settings described significantly increased workloads, such as sanitising outdoor play equipment, that often needed to be done at the hottest part of the day.
Meatworks cleaners described the use of heavy PPE including plastic aprons, face masks, eye protection and gloves as particularly stressful, saying it caused dehydration, headaches and fatigue, and made the use of machinery more dangerous as a consequence.
The problems were compounded when workers could not access air-conditioned spaces, such as health workers or in-home care workers, or workers in older or poorly maintained vehicles.
John Newton, a manufacturing worker from Queensland told Guardian Australia: “Unless people have experienced the discomfort, and having to do that for long shifts, I don’t think people get a good gauge of what it’s like – especially if you’re able to work in an air conditioned area and know you can escape the heat through the peak of the day. I don’t think a lot of people really understand it can affect life outside work as well.”
Due to working with hazardous materials, Newton’s role required wearing of a certain amount of PPE prior to the pandemic, but since its onset masks have also been required on site – an area that has little ventilation due to large machinery and no air conditioning.
“One of my personal worst experiences was wearing full plastic overalls and working in those for a period of six hours throughout the day. By the end of the day I’d lost 8kg in sweat,” Newton said.
The report calls on state and federal governments to overhaul health and safety frameworks and to involve workers and their representatives in the creation and enforcement of protections against heat stress, along with risks from climate crisis, such as bushfire smoke.
Godfrey Moase from the United Workers’ Union said the union would heed the recommendations of the report, which they believed would empower workers to protect the health and safety of themselves and their colleagues.
“The report highlights how important it is in terms of managing Covid and safety to take into account workers’ lived experience on the job and start on that basis to build effective safety responses,” Moase said.
“On current policy settings when you add in climate crisis and Covid-19, those crises will exacerbate inequality. People will have very different working experiences in the heat, based on how privileged or underprivileged they are in the system.”
Ollie Jay, professor of heat and health at Sydney University,said the report addressed an important challenge for the future.
“Clearly extreme heat is a problem and that’s only going to get worse,” Jay said.
The risks were particularly high for workers in lower socio-economic groups, and those performing menial or piecework, where their wages were tied to their output, Jay said.
“What we know is one of the ways we naturally defend against heat stress during physical work is that we slow down. If you do that and your productivity is dependent on how much activity you’re doing, you’ll end up producing less and getting paid less, or work longer to make the same pay. We know that it’s getting worse now as the weather becomes hotter, and that’s really going to impact those people disproportionately,” Jay said.
It was not a surprise that the primary challenge since Covid is the wearing of extra PPE. “PPE by design stops water droplets, so that works in both directions. How we keep cool is the evaporation of sweat, but PPE has a high evaporation resistance. It stops sweat evaporating through it, so you can sweat a lot but it doesn’t cool you down as it should.”
Jay warned that strategies for mitigating heat stress in the workplace needed to be evidence-based and sustainable. “You might be doing something that feels like it’s making you cooler but that might not be reducing your heat stress risk. It’s important to have policies in place to manage heat stress in the workplace, but it’s really important to have the right policies in place.”