Apprentice tradespeople in Northern Australia will swallow tiny capsule thermometers to track their core body temperature during work hours, as part of a range of studies. The studies are to address productivity lost through heat stress in the tropics.
A 2015 study found that heat stress cost the Australian economy $6.2 billion in lost productivity and suggested that temperature increases due to climate change will cause productivity to decrease during summer by 20% by 2050.
Coordinator of the Heat Stress Research Partnership and a co-author of the 2015 study, Dr Elspeth Oppermann, believes that the productivity loss was already greater than estimated in the tropical zone of northern Australia, where “unbearable” conditions persist for months.
The research partnership studied how local workers and workplaces adapted to working in extreme heat and humidity, particularly outdoor workers, and develop appropriate heat stress management practices.
It also aimed to track differences in physiological responses to extreme heat, which is where the tiny thermometers come in.
“What we ask them to do is swallow these little capsules that contain a gastro-intestinal thermometer that transmits people’s temperatures in real time over the course of a work shift,” Oppermann told Guardian Australia.
“What’s of interest to us is how people work in these conditions. What we can do by observing their temperatures is see how their particular mode of working affects their core body temperatures.”
She said health and safety guidelines for heat stress, which recommend stopping work if the temperature reaches 35C or 28C with 70% humidity, were not appropriate for the tropical zone.
“It’s very, very difficult for employers and employees because if they were to do that they would stop work very, very frequently,” she said.
Recommended cooling practices for the dry heat of southern Australia, such as laying a wet flannel on your head or sitting in the shade, also don’t work in areas of high humidity. Instead, people need to do “active cooling” – taking a break inside an air-conditioned space, crunching ice or even sinking into an icy bath – to cool their core body temperature.
Oppermann said the symptoms of heat stress, such as headaches, irritability and a “heat hangover”, were accepted as commonplace by many people working in northern Australia during the build-up to the wet season, and one in four workers surveyed said they experienced the symptoms of heat stress once a week.
This is interesting for the future of climate change, as it is already proving that increasing temperatures are affecting our day to day living and the standard of work.
As it is already affecting the productivity of Australian tradespeople, a 20% increase in this will highly affect working conditions and the future of the jobs.
But we can stop this from happening by taking steps to reduce our carbon footprint. One of the easiest ways to do so is by using solar panels and battery storage to efficiently generate energy.
Smaller steps can also be taken such as walking or riding a bike instead of driving, recycling, and using energy efficient appliances.
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