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Technology Helps Keep Workers Safe from Heat Stress

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While the kind of extreme heat Australia experienced through January is a risk to construction projects and the industry workforce, those challenges can often be managed with some foresight.

Christine Killip, Managing Director of Katestone Environmental and Founder and Managing Director of Weather Intelligence, part of the Katestone Group, explains that heatwaves are by nature “very predictable.”

“We can see them developing,” she says.

However, there’s a flip side to discussing heat and worker safety, Killip says. Some workplace situations can generate risks even without a widespread heatwave scenario.

Killip explains that conditions, such as high humidity, low wind speed, and high UV radiation levels, can make the worksite risky for some workers. Also, work may be taking place in a microclimate, for instance, a concrete area adjacent to a metal shed that reflects and magnifies heat which creates a local heat risk.

The human body can start to experience the negative effects of high temperatures in just six minutes if it is maintaining a high activity level and is unable to dissipate heat. That’s why awareness is so crucial.

Killip gives the example of workers in the type of full-body PPE required for asbestos remediation, which prevents the body from dissipating heat. In warmer climates like Queensland, these workers can be at risk even in winter.

Another factor to take into consideration is how acclimatised to heat a worker might be. In areas like the Northern Territory, local residents become more acclimatised to high temperatures coupled with high humidity.

However, since it takes between 14 to 21 days for a body to acclimatise to local conditions, a sudden heat wave in areas where high temperatures are not the norm does not always allow people to get used to it.

In warmer climates like Queensland, these workers can be at risk even in winter.

Technology coupled with sound planning can help a company navigate the risks, whether they are specific to a particular site or being caused by wider weather patterns.

Her company offers a digital tool, Heat Manager, and high-level planning support that enable companies to think ahead and ensure workers are kept safe.

The Heat Manager platform will deliver an alert seven days in advance. The warning will include information about where a heatwave can be expected. It lets the supervisors know who will be at risk, where they will be at risk and why. It can also be tailored to deliver reminders of what actions supervisors or safety managers need to take to ensure they are prepared to mitigate the risks.

Killip stresses that any managing contractor has ultimate responsibility for the health and safety of everyone on site. Moreover, if a worker dies or is injured due to heat stress, and no steps had been taken to mitigate that risk, the contractor will be held responsible under the WHS regulations.

Adopting a similar approach to the Safe Work Method Statements used for many tasks in construction could also prove a useful approach when managing heat risks. An SWMS for undertaking work in a situation of heat risk could include aspects like how and when a respite from heat will be managed, and what PPE will be used to mitigate heat stress risks.

One thing to be aware of is ensuring the messaging is appropriate, Killip says. There is the potential for messaging to be ineffective if it is issued and everything is fine.

“It needs to be more targeted, so as to not be seen as crying wolf,” she says.

The other important thing is to plan well ahead. Companies that came back to work in January after the Christmas break and only then started addressing the unfolding heatwave risks “possibly should have been thinking about it late last year instead”.

Looking ahead to next summer, there are a number of things that can be planned in advance.

Killip suggests even just having heat monitors in appropriate places can be a valuable step. Other mitigation and management measures might include deciding where and when shade structures should be provided, whether ice should be available on site, what type of cooling equipment could be deployed, and how programs and activities can be amended to reduce heat stress risks.

A buddy system can also be useful if you make workers aware of the signs and symptoms of heat stress.

Using the digital Heat Manager tool can support the overall planning by integrating measures and strategies into a customised app and platform along with the specific triggers that will result in any required reminders, suggestions or alerts. The combination of digital forecasting tools and planning not only helps manage the heat stress but also minimises disruptions to the business.

Looking ahead to next summer, there are a number of things that can be planned in advance.

“The action triggers might tell you to put the ice vests in the freezer for the end of the week [when extreme heat is expected],” Killip explains.

Ultimately, just as project managers must plan for managing stormwater on site, the risks of heat need to be considered in the early stages of a project.

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