Heatwave responsibilities: How to protect your business against worker compensation claims

As parts of Australia have been hit with unusually high temperatures this week, experts have warned employers to be mindful of their workers’ safety during heatwaves, or risk possible compensation claims.

Australians have endured sweltering conditions in the past week, with Melbourne, Adelaide and parts of Western Australia hitting temperatures in the mid-40s.

There are no specific work safety laws governing at what temperature employees should be able to go home, but the scorching temperatures have provided a reminder that employers need to take care of their employees in all conditions.

Workplace health and safety laws state employers need to provide a safe working environment without risks to health and safety, so far as reasonably practicable. This applies to any kind of risk, including hot weather.

Businesses with employees who work outdoors need to be particularly mindful of the weather conditions, and Victorian WorkCover Authority health and safety director Jarrod Edwards said in a statement workers need to look out for each other.

“If you or your employees are working outdoors, look out for one another and look out for signs and symptoms such as heat stroke, fainting, heat exhaustion, cramps, rashes (also called prickly heat) and fatigue,” he says.

“Practical solutions such as using fans or air conditioning to increase air flow, erecting shade cloth to reduce heat on work areas and providing regular rest and drink breaks can assist in preventing heat-related illnesses.”

Edwards says employers should consider modifying workloads, keeping employees well hydrated and providing them with suitable personal protective equipment.

TressCox partner Rachel Drew told SmartCompany employers have an ongoing obligation to ensure risks like the weather don’t cause any damage to employees.

“Work health and safety obligations apply to all facets of the workplace including external things like the weather. If the work is of a physical nature, or it’s outdoors, the weather is a risk the employer would need to manage,” she says.

“Employers need to follow a process of identifying the risk, working out what steps can be taken to eliminate it and then taking action to minimise the risk.”

Drew says in some places specific precautions are put in place in expectation of high temperatures.

“In the northern parts of Queensland, schools actually finish a week earlier as a direct response to the heat,” she says.

In the construction sector, many businesses cease work when the temperature exceeds 35 degrees.

Holding Redlich senior associate Joel Zyngier told SmartCompany employers should do a hazard check to assess the level of risk the heatwave poses in the workplace.

“They then need to consider the possible consequences of the risk and what steps can be taken to reduce it and what costs would be involved and whether or not those costs are reasonable and practicable,” he says.

“An employer might in theory be able to erect a cooling tent, but that would be too expensive and impractical in most cases, so then they’d consider a different solution.”

Zyngier says for people working in extreme conditions, employers can consider providing them with ice vests.

“For people in an office environment, you need to make sure the air conditioning is working and for people sitting in sun exposed area, make sure you provide them with alternative seating or shaded areas,” he says.

Zyngier says if an employee suffers heatstroke or another heat-related condition at work it would constitute a workplace injury and in most cases workers compensation legislation would come into effect.

“Industry codes of practice often provide information for employers on this and in this situation employers would need to show you’d taken reasonable precautions.”

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