Beating the heat

24 August 2022

Us Aussies are used to hot weather, so a few sizzling hot days won’t hurt us, right?

Wrong. Dubbed a ‘silent killer,’ extreme heat has killed more Australians since 1900 than all other natural hazards combined. And with heatwaves predicted to be more frequent and intense in the future, health adaptations are urgently needed.

One way to adapt is to tailor your activities during extreme heat events. Much like packing an umbrella when a storm is predicted, you might choose to wear cool clothing and avoid outdoor activities when hot weather is forecast. To help the community be aware and prepare for extreme heat, a group of researchers* including Professor Hilary Bambrick, Director of the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, have developed a heat health warning system (HHWS). This system reports excess heat factor – a scale that categorises heatwaves by severity.

“The heat and health warning system allows people and health services to be better prepared, preventing illness and saving lives,” says Bambrick.

The system was adopted as Australia’s national emergency warning mechanism earlier this year and has already resulted in reduced heat-related morbidity and healthcare costs.

“It can serve as a reminder for people to be mindful of their activity and to plan their day to avoid being out in the heat where possible, and to take actions to stay cool and hydrated. It’s a reminder too to look out for our family, friends and neighbours who might be at increased risk from heat-related illness,” says Bambrick.

“HHWS has been used to develop health intervention messages specific to populations and communities at increased risk of ill health during extreme heat, including older people and culturally and linguistically diverse communities.”

People who work outdoors are another group at risk during extreme heat, and SafeWork Australia has incorporated the HHWS into its Work Health and Safety (WHS) recommendations.

As well as helping the community and workers plan their activities, the HHWS also assists energy providers in predicting peak load, better managing supply, and enabling health and emergency services to plan and roster staff more appropriately.

To celebrate the impact this research has on keeping Australians safe during extreme heat, the team, led by the University of Adelaide, has been nominated for the prestigious Eureka Prize for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Scientific Research.

“Exposure to increasing extreme heat is just one of the many risks to health from climate change. Understanding and preparing for the broad range of health risks associated with climate change will help us to adapt better and protect population health,” says Bambrick.  

*The Extreme Heat and Health Adaptation Team is a national research collaboration led by the University of Adelaide. Professor Hilary Bambrick is one of the lead investigators and PhD supervisors on the team, bringing expertise in climate change and health adaptation.

By Liz Drummond.