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Baking temperatures put Australia’s trucks and drivers at risk

Australia is baking. Temperatures are in extremes across the country. In some of the inland parts of the country, thermometers are reaching just over 118 degrees Fahrenheit (48 degrees Celsius). In the week ending January 22, much of the country experienced temperatures in excess of 113 F (45 C).

On Wednesday, January 23, the town of Ceduna, South Australia hit 119 F (48.4 C) . Ceduna is about 342 miles (550.40 km) northwest-by-west of the state capital, Adelaide.

“The scale and extent of heat across Australia over the past few weeks has been extraordinary and there’s another hit on the way for the southeast as we close the week,” explains Dr. Adam Morgan, a meteorologist with the Bureau of Meteorology in a broadcast statement.

Extreme temperatures and extreme fire danger warnings have been issued for numerous locations across Australia. People living in fire-prone parts of the country have been warned to make sure they are ready to put their bush fire survival plans in action.

Despite the heat and the dangers, Australians love a good sun-baking. Poets love to write about the heat. Photographers love to photograph people sunbaking.

But for trucks and truck drivers… such hot weather is not a good thing.

Even today’s trucks struggle with the heat

Modern heavy freight vehicles still struggle with the heat. However, they’re much better now than they were 30 years or so ago, says Bob Woodward, Chief Engineer of the Australian Trucking Association.

“Thirty years or so ago, you saw cars and trucks on the side of the road everywhere when it was hot. Today, you still see one or two.”

Woodward explains that, in high temperatures, heat rejection is a problem. Heat rejection is another term for “waste heat” – the heat that is produced as a byproduct of a machine’s operation.

The problem, of course, is keeping the engine cool enough to work properly.

“Internal combustion engines are inefficient – you only get 40 percent as power, the rest is lost in the exhaust or through other loss. Most locally built trucks have good cooling packages. But once above 40 C (104 F) you need the drivers to help. If they slow down their trucks, it makes a huge difference. Slower trucks means less power means less heat to get rid of,” Woodward says.

And if the heat’s not taken care of, then the engine might just shut down, he adds.

It’s not only the engine that’s at risk. Hot weather’s potentially a problem for tyres too. The pressure inside tyres increases in hot weather, especially when tyres are directly exposed to sunlight. Having the incorrect pressure may lead to poor fuel mileage, a reduction in the tyres’ life and sub-optimal handling, according to TyrePower, an independent tyre retailer in Australia.

 Freighted frozen seafood  should be kept colder than minus 20 degrees Celsius  (minus 4 F) but when the ambient Australian temperature is in excess of 40 C (104 F) then a reefer trailer won’t be able to keep the cargo cold.  (Photo: Shutterstock)  Freighted frozen seafood should be kept colder than minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 F) but when the ambient Australian temperature is in excess of 40 C (104 F) then a reefer trailer won’t be able to keep the cargo cold.
(Photo: Shutterstock)

Reefer madness

Then there are the cargo issues too, especially for refrigerated cargo.

“It’s a real killer. Let’s say the cargo goes in at minus 18. You wouldn’t be able to maintain it at minus 18. It starts warming up. Minus 16. Minus 14. Minus 12. It might go positive. So you have a mad rush to get the cargo to where it needs to be,” Woodward explains

Australia’s a very regulated nation. The size and shape of heavy freight vehicles is controlled in Australia under the Heavy Vehicle (Mass, Dimension and Loading) National Regulation.

Rule 7(1) states that a heavy vehicle must not be wider than 2.5 meters (m).

And that 2.5 m limitation on width is a problem for cold trucks in hot ambient temperatures. Australian trailers have room for two pallets plus clearance. But, if a trailer could be marginally wider – 2.6 m wide instead of 2.5 m – then the engineers could squeeze in another 40 cm (1.3 feet) of insulation.

“It would effectively double the insulation,” Woodward says.

Truck driver tried to walk to safety

But it’s not just the truck and the cargo that fare poorly in extreme hot weather. The truck driver might not fare too well either.

This is no idle remark.

Over-the-road truck driver Anthony John Bradanovich died of an exertional heat stroke in 2013.

Bradanovich was delivering an overnight consignment of goods in three trailers (two from Perth Airport, one from a site en-route to destination) to a remote mine site. He never arrived.

It’s clear that Bradanovich missed his turn-off and was heading deep into the interior of remote Australia. The report notes that his truck was found, by a passing motorist, bogged down on an unsealed road. It is believed that Bradanovich attempted to walk to the remote village of Wiluna, about 55 km away from his truck. He managed 30 km in 40 C (104 F) heat before collapsing.

His body was found lying in the road.

 A turn-left sign on an unsealed Outback road in Karijini National Park Western Australia. (Photo: Shutterstock).

Truckers aren’t safe just because they’re in the cab

Truck drivers can quite easily come to harm in extreme weather without leaving the cab.

Driving at speed with the windows down can be quite pleasant. The breeze whirling through the cab in a moving truck will likely keep the driver comfortable, even in hot weather. But the driver might not realise that he or she is dehydrating.

The Australian National Road Safety Partnership Program points out that people who sit in vehicles for long periods of time – and it specifically mentions truck drivers – are at risk from dehydration. It says that around two-thirds of drivers cannot recognise the symptoms of dehydration, which include tiredness, dry mouth or bad breath, dizziness and headaches. Dehydration adversely affects driving performance and can lead to inadvertent lane drifting, crossing to the other side of the road and late-braking.

“In essence, those who drive for long durations of time or in warm weather are more at risk,” the Program stated.

Truck drivers might not be able to benefit from a breezy drive or from sheltering in an air-conditioned cab all day either. Woodward points out that drivers have to jump out of the cab, possibly for extended periods, to do such job-related tasks as fixing up load restraints. And in extreme heat, that can be tiring, unpleasant and, at worst, dangerous.

Exposure to high ambient temperatures, such as those found in the Australian summer, will cause sweating, increased respiration and an increased heart rate. This is normal, says WorkSafe Queensland, a state-based health and safety regulator. However, extended exposure to extreme heat can cause a variety of adverse effects including heat rash, heat cramps (muscle pains or spasms), dizziness and fainting, heat exhaustion (including all of the symptoms given so far and including headache, nausea and vomiting).

Finally, it may lead to heatstroke, which is when the core temperature of the body has risen so much that the internal organs begin to fail. Symptoms include staggering, confusion, collapsing, unconsciousness, delirium, coma and seizures. Heat stroke is an emergency and requires immediate medical attention, WorkSafe Queensland explained.

Guidance on how to manage safe working in the extreme Australian heat can be obtained from advisory body Safe Work Australia.

Cover Photo: a road train drives along a gravel road in the Australian Outback; credit Shutterstock.