Impacts of rising temperatures on outdoor worker safety

Wednesday, 20 April, 2022

Research from Charles Sturt University has investigated how the changing climate is impacting people’s ability to work outdoors. Gulbali Institute for Agriculture, Water and Environment researcher and Associate Professor in Geospatial Science Dr Andrew Hall has published research on how changes in climate might impact outdoor physical activity. The study reveals predicted changes in climate might impact people’s ability to work outdoors in Australia at different times of the year. At-risk groups in Australia include miners, farm workers, defence personnel and athletes.

Using wet bulb globe temperature, which is used to assess physical activity limits by combining key meteorological data and a military heat categorisation system, researchers assessed different climate scenarios across Australia. The researchers found that in the next 20 to 60 years, physical activity will become more restricted across a larger area of Australia. “As the climate warms, we might have to implement new ways of managing physical outdoor work across much of the continent,” Hall said.

Hall suggested taking longer breaks across longer periods of the day and requiring breaks during more months of the year as solutions. According to Hall, the research is important, because a warmer climate reduces the effectiveness of the human body’s cooling mechanisms. Unchecked heat exposure, combined with physical activity, can lead to incapacitating heat illnesses and, in the most serious of cases, life-threatening heatstroke. Hall said that developing a greater understanding of the risks associated with working in increasingly hotter weather will help communities and industries to adapt. “The research shows there’s a need for greater understanding about human physical activity limits and the risk exposure to heat-related injury, above the current highest heat categories used to inform outdoor work practices, to prepare for a warmer climate,” Hall said.

An international standard heat measure, the wet bulb globe temperature (WBGT) that was developed by the United States military in the 1970s, is commonly used to determine heat categories that recommends limits on physical activity. Hall said his research has shown that the rate of increase in WGBT over the next 50 years will move many areas of Australia into more restrictive categories. The modelling indicates that Longreach and Townsville, under average daytime January temperatures with clear conditions and a 10 km/h wind speed, will move from Heat Category 2 under recent climate conditions to Heat Category 3 by 2050. Moderate physical activity, such as brisk walking or gardening, which under Category 2 conditions can continue for 150 minutes in any four-hour period with minimal risk of heat injury, will, under Category 3, be reduced to 100 minutes.

Hall said this research assists the focus of the Gulbali Institute, which was launched in Wagga Wagga on Friday, 25 March, to solve core challenges for climate change resilience and adaption. The research findings can be applied to inform future strategies on how to beat the heat to continue outdoor work.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/juefraphoto

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