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Research to focus on heat stress impacts on NT workers

By Leanne Coleman

With record levels of heat and humidity being experienced in the Top End of the Northern Territory, researchers are preparing to talk to workers about their levels of heat stress With record levels of heat and humidity being experienced in the Top End of the Northern Territory, researchers are preparing to talk to workers about their levels of heat stress

With record levels of heat and humidity being experienced in the Top End of the Northern Territory, researchers are preparing to talk to workers about the level of heat stress they are experiencing on-the-job.

The team from Charles Darwin University and the National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre (NCCTRC) will assess the impacts of heat stress on labour-intensive industries in the NT to help improve current work-related heat stress management strategies.

CDU’s Northern Institute Dr Elspeth Oppermann said that Northern Australia experienced severe levels of heat and humidity for 25 per cent of the year, but little was known about the physiological impacts of heat stress or the social and organisational mechanisms through which it was managed in practice.

“The impact of humid heat on productivity, wellbeing and safety of workers is commonly recognised in the NT,” Dr Oppermann said. “What isn’t clear is the degree of physiological and social impacts, in conjunction with job-specific or site-specific practices, and what this could mean for industry and workers in the NT.”

Dr Oppermann will work with Dr Matt Brearley, from the NCCTRC, to build on their state-of-the-art heat stress studies that monitor individual core-temperatures in real-time and link these to the physical workloads and environmental conditions.

“It is the sort of monitoring previously reserved for elite athletes to improve performance and win medals,” Dr Brearley said. “In the NT, those working in labour-intensive industries are periodically exposed to hot conditions and can experience similar types of physical stress, making them ‘industrial athletes’. 

“The NCCTRC has done similar monitoring with emergency services staff and we are translating this methodology to assist industry with heat stress management strategies.”

Entitled “Organisational change and social learning: cultures, behaviours and structures in managing heat stress in the Top End”, the research will aim to combine social and physiological measurements to give an overall picture.

“The project will further develop the monitoring side in conjunction with an analysis of social practices and discourses that shape individual and collective beliefs and behaviours about how to manage heat and hydration,” Dr Oppermann said. “Through the integration of medical and social analysis we hope to generate a strong evidence base for organisational interventions to improve heat stress management.

“The workforce of the NT is very transient. I will be speaking to staff about how they make their day-to-day choices about dealing with heat stress. And if they are not from the NT, we will be interested to know how they have learned to deal with heat stress and what beliefs or norms shape their behaviours.”