Climate change will have an impact on many areas of life in Queensland.
This article will briefly highlight some of the ways that increased extremes of weather will likely affect the duty of employers in Queensland to provide a safe workplace for their employees. It also includes some practical resources for employers, especially those operating small businesses, to assist with assessing risk from climate change.
Increased risk of injury is foreseeable, and foreseen
In 2019, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners published an article saying that Queensland was the State with the most to lose from an anticipated four degrees of global warming over the next 80 years.
The RACGP said there would be ‘major impacts on human health, ranging from cyclones to snakebite to dengue to jellyfish stings to vector-borne disease’. It highlighted expectations of longer heatwaves, with higher minimum and maximum temperatures, which would impact on Queensland’s already tropical climate.
In 2018 the Queensland Government published the Human Health and Wellbeing Climate Change Adaptation Plan, to support human health and resilience in managing the risks of a changing climate.
That plan, although it was directed at the health, aged-care and child-care sectors, indicated that one barrier to effective adaptation was the lack of understanding of legal risks associated with climate change and identified that conducting climate change risk assessments was a significant practical consideration.
Employers' duty to minimise climate change injury risk
Employers in Queensland owe a non-delegable duty to take reasonable steps to avoid foreseeable risks of injury to their employees.
This duty includes consideration of providing a safe system of work, a safe workplace, and safe plant and equipment. Importantly, for the purposes of this article, it includes consideration of how emerging changes to the climatic conditions in which work is performed can create risks to the workforce.
Things for employers to think about
Workplace Health and Safety Queensland published the Code of Practice on Managing the Work Environment and Facilities in 2021. The Code of Practice provides:
- Workers carrying out work in extreme heat or cold must be able to carry out work without a risk to their health and safety, so far as is reasonably practicable;
- Environmental conditions and the health and safety of workers must be monitored when work involves prolonged or repeated exposure to heat or cold, which can be fatal;
- The risk to the health of workers increases as conditions move further away from those generally accepted as comfortable;
- Heat-related illness can arise from working in high air temperatures, exposure to high thermal radiation or high levels of humidity, such as those in foundries, commercial kitchens and laundries;
- Both personal and environmental factors need to be considered when assessing the risk;
- Personal factors can include: use of medications, age, any health conditions, level of physical activity and breastfeeding, clothing worn and duration of exposure;
- Environmental factors include: air temperature, level of humidity, air movement and radiant heat;
- In circumstances where there will be prolonged or repeated exposure, workers should be trained and instructed to recognise early symptoms of heat stress in themselves and others.
The Code of Practice suggests the following control measures:
- increase air movement using fans;
- install air-conditioners or evaporative coolers to lower air temperature;
- isolate workers from indoor heat sources, for example by insulating plant, pipes and walls;
- remove heated air or steam from hot processes using local exhaust ventilation;
- use mechanical aids to assist in carrying out manual tasks;
- alter work schedules so that work is done at cooler times.
Resources to assist risk assessments
You can use the Queensland Government’s interactive Climate Dashboard to see how the climate, including anticipated mean temperatures, severity and duration of heatwaves, and extreme temperatures may impact the region in which you do business.
The Queensland Government publishes a Climate Change Risk Management Tool for Small Businesses which provides guidance for small business to conduct risk assessments.
Minimising injury risk
It is important for employers to clearly document the risk assessment process and any control measures you determine are required, including: training and instruction of workers, developing and implementing action plans, and taking steps to improve working environments.
The documented risk assessments should be kept secure and locatable, including previous versions. Minutes of discussions about the impact of climate change on the business with employees should also be kept, whether they are in team meetings, toolbox talks, education sessions or feedback surveys.
At Hede Byrne and Hall Lawyers, we have been advising employers and investigating and defending WorkCover claims for over 30 years. We have a dedicated team of experienced WorkCover lawyers available to assist with any inquiries from employers.