OHS and WHS: the madness of working in extreme heat

For many people who work outdoors in the summer in Australia is a long and tiring few months. The heat can be extreme and unbearable. But on places like the Northern Territory an aliment known as “mango madness" descends as the build-up of humidity increases and is blamed for driving up crime and dragging down morale.

In a recent interview with ABC News, Matt Brearley spoke about how its his job to train tradespeople and labourers in the art of keeping cool and says the condition is no myth.

To investigate how bad the heat gets, Dr Brearley relies on a small ingestible pill which tracks workers' core body temperatures as they move through a hot working day. He told the ABC that he found the effects of prolonged heat exposure, when the temperature rests above a healthy window for too long, can be widespread.

"We think all this feeds into this perceived mango madness, which is a different kind of hangover,” Brearley said.

As well as age, fitness, and individual resilience to heat playing a factor, Dr Brearley found that born-and-bred Darwinians are less likely to succumb to severe heat stress.

"A new resident will probably not be as heat acclimatised as a resident with many wet seasons behind them," Brearley said.

He warned that some people, especially interstate workers in heavy protective gear, could become dangerously oblivious to heat's long-term effects.

Sustained heat exposure can leave people with what's known as a heat hangover — suffering as if they've had a big night, without a drop of alcohol.

"Symptoms of headaches, nausea, lack of energy, lethargy, and lack of appetite manifest as a result of being exposed to heat beyond a person's capability," Brearley told the ABC.

"It's almost universal that we've all suffered one at some stage and many workers are suffering them regularly."

A heat hangover can also stretch on for days if ignored, leading to periods of prolonged irritability and fatigue. We're seeing that the effects are not finished when you finish your work shift or when you finish mowing the lawn or playing sport.”

"They're long-lasting, and have a long-lasting effect on how people go about their business in the Top End,” said Brearley adding that you can see that relationships with co-workers and family members, as well as recreational activities outside of work are often impacted," he said.

Research recently published by Dr Brearley and his colleagues showed a marked increase in suicide and assault in the Top End's steamy wet season.

“Part of the solution was recognising the seriousness of sustained exposure to heat".

The heat stress consultant also urged the power and water employees he worked with to realise they don't have to suffer through the high temperatures.

"The first thing we need to do is stop being so macho about living in the Top End," said Brearley.

"We need to realise that feeling hot and uncomfortable doesn't have to come with the territory. Second, we need to treat it with evidence-based solutions."


Back to blog