Managing heat stress within and across domains: outdoor workers, rhythm and responsibility in Australia’s monsoonal north. Elspeth Opperman

elspethSeminar held: Wednesday 21st September 2016

Australia’s monsoon tropics is characterised by high temperatures combined with extremely high humidity for about half of the year. These conditions pose a profound challenge to human thermoregulation and heat stress is a common experience in the region. The outdoor, labour-intensive workforce is particularly exposed, and produces additional bodily heat through exertion. In their work, humid heat appears as an inescapable material companion with whom workers engage in a temporal dance of exposure, exertion, hydration and cooling, during which heat is either accumulated or lost. The heat-balance rhythm occurs within the domains of work and home and across them. In part, this is because heat is transferred in the body between work and home, and because heat stress has a complex temporality – its physiological causality has time lags from a few minutes to a few days. This challenges the representation of practices in these different domains as ‘separate’ and begs the question of how domestic energy use is being shaped by practices of work and vice versa. It also raises the profoundly political questions of who (or what?) is responsible for, and responsibilized by, these rhythms? How are these co-dependent sequences of practices normalized, justified and enabled, and what kind of ‘Life’ do they produce?


Elspeth gave a fascinating account of her ongoing interdiscplinary research on heat stress amongst workers in the monsoonal region of Northern Australia. This a region where heat and humidity have a problematic relationship, with higher levels of humidity adding to the stress that bodies experience as temperatures get high. Phrases such as ‘going tropo’ and ‘mango madness’ have been used historically and locally to signify the consequences that can result. Standards developed in less humid parts of Australia to mark thresholds at which air temperatures become dangerous, do not provide an equivalent level of protection because of the combined heat-humidity interaction. How the risks to those working outdoors in strenuous occupations (e.g. infrastructure maintenance)  should be understood, assessed and managed then become  important questions – and, it became clear, pretty involved ones.

For Elspeth, visiting DEMAND has been an opportunity to think through her research using social practice theory, which requires finding ways of entwining thermodynamics into a framework which easily account for continually moving heat flows between bodies, environments and materials. There are traces of relevant thinking in Schatzki’s account of how practices transpire in relation to material arrangements of various forms, but the effects and management of thermodynamics are also integral to the interconnected sets of practices that workers are engaging in – not just at work, but also before and after given the way that thermal balances and heat stress effects have temporal lags and rhythms, are spatially differentiated and contingent.  It is a combined effect of ‘weather and work’ that co-produces heat within the body meaning that considerations such as the rate and length of work and the safety of risky work when heat stress is having effects on mental competence need to be built into identifying ways of intervening  to protect workers heath. A whole host of interesting issues were raised in the presentation and subsequent discussion, about, for example, responsibilitization and power, proxies for climate adaptation, the ‘placelessness’ of occupational health standards and how to incorporate a recognition of bodily difference without connecting problematically into racist colonial discourses of indigeneity.


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