While beachgoers and barbecue chefs rejoice the onset of summer, the heat can cause serious headaches for organisations who owe a duty of care to anyone spending prolonged periods outdoors. For sports, events and venue managers, there is a responsibility to ensure staff, volunteers, athletes, performers and the public are all protected from the elements.
Heat Stress Victims
Those who physically exert themselves outdoors are most at risk of heat stress, which can take the form of heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat stroke or fainting. They could be athletes, attendees of outdoor dance festivals or staff who work outdoors. High-profile examples abound:
- Late last month, US professional swimmer Fran Crippen died during the FINA Open Water 10km world cup race, held near Dubai. The water temperature was about 30 degrees
- Vicki Whitelaw, an Australian cyclist, claimed to see black spots while competing in 44 degree heat during the recent Delhi Commonwealth Games
- In 2008, a high school footballer in the United States died after training in 35 degree heat
- A German backpacker died from heat stress while working on a Queensland farm earlier this year
In addition, those who sit for long periods in the sun – such as crowds at day cricket matches – are at risk of heat stroke.
Risks to Organisations
If organisations fail to successfully mitigate heat, a number of consequences are possible:
- Public Health – the most obvious risk is that people will become ill and in the worst case, could die
- Reputation – high profile organisations that fail to mitigate heat stress risk to staff or the public can attract negative attention. The organisers of the Delhi Games have been criticised for scheduling the female cycling race at 1pm
- Legal Liability – the coach of the above-mentioned high school footballer who died while training was charged with reckless homicide, after it was alleged he withheld water from the athletes. He was, however, eventually found not guilty
Prevention of Heat Stress
There are a number of ways that the risks of heat stress can be mitigated. These include:
Consider the time of year that events are taking place, and, if possible, schedule matches to reduce exposure to heat. In the past, the National Rugby League has scheduled a number of consecutive away matches in the cooler southern states for Queensland clubs at the start of the season (during February and March.)
Extra breaks should be added to matches where heat is deemed to create a risk. During the Australian Open tennis tournament, the Extreme Heat Policy has a provision for an extra 10 minute break during the second and third sets of women’s and juniors’ singles matches.
Equipment such as cooling vests may be used by athletes or outdoor workers to reduce the body’s core temperature. Nike developed their “PreCool Vest” specifically for athletes during the Beijing Olympics (it is not available publicly). The vest was intended to be worn for an hour before competition, and it is claimed that the vest allows 21% more endurance.
In addition to the provision of sufficient drinking water, outdoor music festivals in the past have sprayed crowds with cold water and provided walk-through water spraying tents.
It is imperative that there is enough shaded area to protect those exposed to the elements.
Planning of adequate medical support should take into account the likely conditions and numbers of people attending an event. Emergency Management Australia helps guide an event planner in scoping their medical resourcing needs. (See their Safe and Healthy Mass Gatherings Manual)
Following the heat-related death of the German backpacker, Workplace Health and Safety Queensland released a Safety Alert with a number of other control measures. It can be found through their website.