Heat on companies to improve worker safety in high temperatures
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Heat on companies to improve worker safety in high temperatures

The insanity of allowing tennis players to compete in extreme heat at the Australian Open made me think about heat-out policies in other industries and how many are lagging.

It defies belief that tennis players are expected to compete for hours when the on-court temperature is above 60 degrees. With some of the world's fittest athletes saying they were "dying on court", one wonders whether the Open's complex heat-out formula is appropriate.

With some of the world's fittest athletes "dying on court", the Australian Open's complex heat-out formula is facing scrutiny.

With some of the world's fittest athletes "dying on court", the Australian Open's complex heat-out formula is facing scrutiny.Credit:AAP

The professional rugby league player Kato Ottio died this month, reportedly because of heatstroke during a training session that involved road running. A Manly Warringah player collapsed twice during pre-season training because of heat exhaustion and is OK.

This is not just an issue for elite sport or other industries where work is mostly done outdoors. If temperatures rise, more employers will have to reconsider worker safety and productivity during heatwaves and change how they do business.

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Rugby league player Kato Ottio died this month, reportedly because of heatstroke.

Rugby league player Kato Ottio died this month, reportedly because of heatstroke.Credit:Jeffrey Chan, Fairfax Media

Consider a motorbike courier who works 10 hours ferrying parcels or food, wearing a heavy helmet and protective jacket, on a hot day. Or a teacher who works in a poorly cooled demountable classroom. Or a small business owner who must mow lawns or clean gutters on a hot day to get paid. How do these and many other occupations respond to the heat?

Even white-collar employers, where work is done in airconditioned offices, will be affected in one way or another if worker productivity and safety suffer during heatwaves.

What if an employee works at home for their employer during a heatwave, in an office that is not airconditioned, and suffers health problems. Is your home office airconditioned?

The home office is technically a "place of work" in this instance, but I doubt many employers have considered its safety from a heat perspective. The same is true of employers using private vehicles, which may not be airconditioned, for work purposes.

As a small business owner, I changed my work hours during Melbourne's latest heatwave. I started later (due to a poor sleep) and did most work at night when it was cooler. I wore shorts and a T-shirt (I do that regardless of heat) and stayed indoors.

Meanwhile, a friend that day trudged to work with a million other commuters, wearing a suit and tie, at 8.30am. By 6pm, he looked like he was suffering exhaustion after battling public transport delays because of the heat. His dopey employer did not respond to the conditions.

Also, he says his office's airconditioning system struggles on hot days because the firm has jammed too many workers into the open-plan design to cut costs. How many other offices have airconditioning systems that struggle to perform in extreme temperatures or have poor ventilation?

Business must respond.

Here's a crazy thought. What if more employers during heatwaves encouraged white-collar staff to work from home or provided flexibility to start earlier (to avoid some of the heat) or start later if they had a bad sleep because their house felt like an oven?

It makes no sense having so many businesses start and finish at the same time during heatwaves. Or millions of workers consuming energy during peak periods (when office airconditioners are at full throttle) or jostling for public transport at the same time. Inevitably, some public transit systems break down or run late during heatwaves.

What if companies eased their dress codes during heatwaves and encouraged employees to wear stylish clothing for the conditions? I'm not proposing a return to knee-length socks, shorts and short-sleeve shirts, but it makes no sense wearing a heavy suit during extreme heat! Employees, particularly those who are not seen by clients, should dress for the conditions.

Some industries, of course, have sensible, enforced hot-weather policies. In construction, union policies require staff to cease work if the temperature is above 35 degrees in exposed areas, and cease all work above 37.5 degrees (unless in an airconditioned areas).

I worked as a labourer for a railway fettling gang many years ago and recall being allowed to have a drink break every 20 minutes in the peak of summer. We started at 6.30am and most of the heavy lifting was done by midday.

In the non-profit-sector, many sporting associations stop play for children and adults when the temperature is too high. They understand the dangers of too much exertion in high heat – and their club's potential liability if conditions are unsafe.

I'm not proposing companies go overboard with hot-weather policies or overreact to the impact of global warming on worker safety. Some places and industries are more affected by heat than others, and extreme heat may be a risk for only a few days each year, or not at all.

But the fact is, heat records are being smashed in more cities. Whether one believes in global warming or not, many workers are doing their jobs in hotter conditions. If the trend continues, industry will have to respond with enhanced heat safety policies and better resources – and plan for revenue loss during heat-affected days.

Sadly, it may take heat-related deaths to force the issue – or high-profile examples such as the Australian Open to highlight the dangers of requiring work during extreme heat.

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Tony Featherstone writes on Personal Finance specialising in Superannuation & SMSFs, Specialist Investments.