Working in the heat: Know the facts

As we come into the worst of the long, hot Australian summer, many meat workers will now be sweating it out in uncomfortable temperatures.

But these temperatures can be more than just uncomfortable. If temperatures get high enough and adequate precautions are not taken, workers can start suffering from exhaustion, fainting, cramps and even heat stroke.

These conditions are serious and, like all workplace safety matters, are the responsibility of all workers. Union members know that workers need to look out for each other and at this time of year it’s more important than ever.

Based on the best available evidence, the Australian Council of Trade Unions has established recommended guidelines for working in the heat (PDF). As the temperature rises, workers must take rest breaks every hour so they can drink water, reduce their body heat, and remain safe.

Duration of paid rest breaks within each hour when temperature reaches and/or exceeds temperature shown Temperature
10 minutes 30-32 degrees Celsius
20 minutes 32-34 degrees Celsius
30 minutes 34-36 degrees Celsius
Cease working 36-38 degrees Celsius

The NSW Government also makes recommendations: frequent breaks, frequent fluid intake, proper ventilation and monitoring. Unfortunately, like the ACTU’s guidelines, these are recommendations only. That’s all they can do.

Employers are required by law to take “all reasonable steps” to ensure a safe working environment for you and your colleagues. But the exact definition of “reasonable” is always going to be subjective – and chances are good that you and your employer might not see eye to eye on what it means.

That’s where employee Health and Safety Representatives come in.

An employee who has been certified as a Health and Safety Representative can do more than just look out for their fellow workers. They have special powers protected by law that allow them to address hazards, formally order government inspections of workplaces and machinery, and even order an immediate shutdown if they believe workers are at risk.

Not just any employee can do this. That’s why it’s so important that workplaces have strong workers who look out for each other and are willing to step up to get the HSR training that will give them these powers.

Union-trained Health and Safety Representatives have the skills and knowledge to spot heat illness and to make sure that workers stay safe. If you think you’ve got what it takes to become an HSR, talk to your delegate or your union organiser today.

This summer, remember: strong workers make a strong union, and a strong union makes a safe workplace.