Sweltering cities: Heat sink warehouses 'unbearable'


  • Winner of the 2023 Ossie Award for student journalism in the Best text-based story by an undergraduate or postgraduate student – 750 words or less.

With global warming expected to bring more frequent and more intense heatwaves, conditions are set to get worse for workers in logistics unless changes are made to warehouse design.

The NSW Treasury Department predicts that by 2061 up to 2.7 million work days could be lost every year to excessive heat, according to their 2021 climate risk report.

Joshua Conklin, a warehouse manager in Alexandria, said the lack of adequate cooling made his warehouse unbearably hot in summer.

“It's very uncomfortable. It's very unventilated, stuffy, claustrophobic, the heat basically just makes everything harder to do. Your day-to-day stuff is just unbearable,” Conklin said.

Many warehouses consist of corrugated iron structures in concrete industrial parks near the same suburbs that experience excessive heatwaves, such as Blacktown and Penrith. In January 2020, Penrith reached 48.9 degrees and was the hottest place on earth.

'You don't really have a choice, right? Dealing with the heat ... has always been part of the job. There are definitely moments where it felt unbearable.'

A 2022 survey published by Sweltering Cites showed that heat had a dramatic impact on health, with 66.8% of respondents saying they felt unwell during heatwaves, while almost 30% had difficulty concentrating.

Their simple design, metal construction and open floor plans turn warehouses into heat sinks that cannot be cooled easily like homes or office buildings, putting workers at risk.

Jane Lui, Health and Safety Officer with the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employee’ Association (SDA), which represents warehouse workers across Australia, said the industry needs to improve the design of warehouses to increase airflow and reduce radiant heat.

“Everyone agrees there's an issue with heat,” Lui said.

“You can’t air-condition all warehouses, it’s unfeasible. But you can get similar affects with airflow.”

“It's about introducing that fresh air. It's about making it so that it's cooler so that there's not that build-up of heat, because we've seen fans on top of roofs, and it actually is radiant heat at the top and it pushes the hot air down onto the employees.”

“I've seen a lot of warehouses and they have skylights. So even reducing that can make a huge difference.”

Providing quality airflow won’t be easy, with issues such as dust, pests, pollution, and smoke from bushfires complicating the design of warehouse ventilation.

The outside environment could also play a significant role.

According to Sweltering Cities, tree cover and green space can reduce ambient temperatures by ten degrees.

Lui agrees that introducing green space to industrial zones would help combat heatwaves.

Conklin said high temperatures made his team irritable and distracted, needing frequent breaks to drink and rest.

“Everybody's different when it comes to how they treat heat. But I've always wanted to put the person first, instead of the company, you don't get the best out of a person if they can't actually be there,” Conklin said.

Jacky He, a student who relies on casual warehouse work, felt compelled to continue through intense heat despite the physical toll.

“You don't really have a choice, right? Dealing with the heat, dealing with the conditions has always been part of the job. There are definitely moments where it felt unbearable,” He said.

“Currently (there) isn't really any sort of legislation or forethought put into actually thinking ahead to tackle what's going to be inevitable.”

“I feel like we have practices in place to cope with it. We don't necessarily have any long-term solutions.”

Australia has no maximum safe temperature, with Worksafe Australia saying it’s up to individual Workplace Health and Safety representatives.

Some industries have rules set by their union, such as the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), which stops work at 35 degrees Celsius or 75 percent humidity.

Lui said there were no similar rules for warehouse workers because complicated variables within the industry made blanket guidelines hard to establish.

Setting limits may also prove unpopular with workers, said He, as casual staff would be forced to lose income.

“Looking for more large-scale designs in the warehouse, maybe using different materials to provide better insulation would probably do a lot more,” He said.

“Hopefully the structures of these warehouses become better as time goes on.”

This was the fourth in a five-part series, Sweltering cities, on how rising global temperatures will impact daily living and working conditions — and what needs to change.


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