In 2013, a construction worker named Glenn Newport was working on a coal seam gas pipeline in a remote part of inland Queensland, Australia. This was his first work shift back after some time off for personal reasons, and the temperature that day likely reached 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) with humidity. A safety officer on duty at the site emphasized the need for the workers to stay hydrated in the heat. Midway through the day, Newport became distressed and sought respite in the provided shade tent, and then medical attention from paramedics onsite. He returned to the workers’ accommodations but became progressively more incoherent as the day went on, before he collapsed in the evening. He was pronounced dead at 11:10 p.m. The Office of the State Coroner found he died of a counterintuitive cause: “cardiac arrest precipitated by dilutional hyponatremia”—that is, in trying to combat the effects of the intense heat, he drank too much water.
Hyponatremia happens when the concentration of sodium in blood is abnormally low. “In hyponatremia, one or more factors—ranging from an underlying medical condition to drinking too much water—cause the sodium in your body to become diluted,” according to the Mayo Clinic. “When this happens, your body’s water levels rise, and your cells begin to swell. This swelling can cause many health problems, from mild to life-threatening.”
Plan to Combat Working in the Heat
It’s important for employers to create a comprehensive and suitable plan to combat the risk of working in the heat. Previously, many policies solely emphasized drinking enough water if working in the heat. “But, as the inquest into the death of Mr. Newport demonstrated, that’s not good management of anything, because in fact, some people will get really, really sick if you do that,” said Jonathan Ivanisevic, an attorney with HopgoodGanim in Brisbane, Australia.
The Office of the State Coroner said once it appears clear that someone is so affected by heat that they are unable to work, they ought to be removed from the worksite and taken to a hospital for a proper assessment. An industrywide code also ought to have a cut-off temperature at which work must cease, the office recommended.
For some jobs, reorganizing work times to occur at night diminishes the impact of heat and light, though this brings along its own risks of lower visibility and higher fatigue.
Organizing frequent breaks can be a solution for strenuous activities.
For those working during daylight, shade should be provided along with moderate amounts of hydration at regular intervals and cooling stations and appropriate personal protective equipment. The Mayo Clinic recommends consulting with doctors about replacing water with sports beverages that contain electrolytes when participating in demanding activities.
A buddy system can help keep track of workers who are heat-affected. The penalties for failing to protect workers from heat risk are high, with fines and possible prison sentences, depending on the Australian state.
Protecting employees from the many risks of working in the heat in Australia is addressed in Queensland’s Work Health and Safety Act of 2011. “The obligation is upon employers and others conducting a business to assess the particular work environment, their business and for their workers, and take reasonably practical steps to ensure their health and safety,” said Greg McCann, an attorney with Colin Biggers & Paisley in Sydney. While Queensland’s Work Health and Safety Act of 2011 is not a national scheme, most other states in Australia have created similar legislation to cover the same health and safety issues.
“When you look at working in the heat, that is more relevant for some workers than others,” Ivanisevic said. “Typically, those sorts of workers are construction workers, miners, farming [and] agriculture [workers], the sorts of people that work outside or in structures or confined areas that are prone to radiated heat from the sun.”
Queensland’s Work Health and Safety Act of 2011 requires employers to take steps to ensure workers’ health and safety that are reasonably practicable, meaning the employers must either eliminate the risk if possible, or identify the potential hazards and risks and then implement measures to control or minimize those risks. There should also be a system in place to monitor and review the control measures to make sure they are working effectively and are being followed.
“Each particular employer and business must do a risk assessment to look at the category of workers that they have, where they will be working, what’s the temperature going to be” and what the particular environment is, taking into account the humidity, McCann said. Next, they must “assess what’s best for their health and safety in those particular conditions.”
Consider risks other than heat. Working remotely in exposed areas and away from services or hospitals is a risk. The ages of workers, pre-existing medical conditions, drug and alcohol use off work hours, and a lack of acclimatization can all contribute to heat risk. There is a broad spectrum of heat risks: heat rash, cramps, fainting, dehydration and heat stress. Ivanisevic said heat stress “goes from being a little bit stressed up to heat stroke.”
Preventative Measures Regardless of Work Location
The safety of employees who work remotely, whether construction workers in the field or office workers at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, is still the responsibility of their employer. “[Just] because they’re at work, although not in their usual place of work, the duties are no different,” Ivanisevic said. “So they have to make sure that that person’s safe while working in their home.”
The key with any of these actions is to focus on preventative measures as much as possible.
Katie Nadworny is a freelance writer in Istanbul.