Too hot to work? Keeping employees safe in the sun
We’ve seen the beginnings of summer in recent weeks and, as temperatures soar (and drop again!) many workers are spending days in unbearably warm offices or working outdoors in the blazing sunshine. This is a significant health and safety issue for employers, whose duty it is to ensure staff are comfortable and protected from harmful UV rays during the summer months.
Unlike in the winter season, when a minimum temperature in which employees are allowed to work can be given, the HSE says that a meaningful maximum figure cannot be given due to the high temperatures found in, for example, glass works or foundries. However, in such environments, it is still possible to work safely provided appropriate controls are present.
How you manage the effects of temperature in your workplace depends on whether it is indoors or outdoors and the normal operating temperature of that environment.
Regulation 7 of the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 deals specifically with the temperature in indoor workplaces and states: “During working hours, the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be reasonable.” But a reasonable temperature for a workplace depends on work activity and the environmental conditions of the workplace and individual personal preference makes it difficult to specify a thermal environment which satisfies everyone.
Environmental factors (such as humidity and sources of heat in the workplace) combine with personal factors (such as the clothing a worker is wearing and how physically demanding their work is) to influence what is called someone’s ‘thermal comfort’: a person’s state of mind in terms of whether they feel too hot or too cold.
In indoor workplaces, when people are too hot, the HSE advises to help ensure thermal comfort in warm conditions by:
- providing fans, e.g. desk, pedestal or ceiling-mounted fans;
- ensuring that windows can be opened;
- shading employees from direct sunlight with blinds or by using reflective film on windows to reduce the heating effects of the sun;
- siting workstations away from direct sunlight or other situations or objects that that radiate heat (e.g. plant or machinery);
- relaxing formal dress code – but you must ensure that personal protective equipment is provided and used if required;
- allowing sufficient breaks to enable employees to get cold drinks or cool down;
- providing additional facilities, e.g. cold water dispensers (water is preferable to caffeine or carbonated drinks);
- introducing formal systems of work to limit exposure, e.g. flexible working patterns, job rotation, workstation rotation etc.;
- placing insulating materials around hot plant and pipes; and
- providing air-cooling or air-conditioning plant.
For outdoor workers, employers need to consider that too much sunlight can cause skin damage including sunburn, blistering and skin ageing and in the long term can lead to an increased risk of skin cancer.
For Outdoor workers, the HSE advises ensuring the safety of those employees by:
- rescheduling work to cooler times of the day;
- providing more frequent rest breaks and introduce shading to rest areas;
- providing free access to cool drinking water;
- introducing shading in areas where individuals are working;
- encouraging the removal of personal protective equipment when resting to help encourage heat loss; and
- educating workers about recognising the early symptoms of heat stress.
Both indoor and outdoor workers may be required to wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in order to carry out their job safely; however, this should be considered a last resort if there are safe alternatives during high temperatures, as it reduces the body’s ability to evaporate sweat.
The HSE advises
“Additionally, if the PPE is cumbersome or heavy it may contribute to an increase in the heat being generated inside the body. Wearing PPE in warm/hot environments and/or with high work rates may increase the risk of heat stress.”
Symptoms of this include:
- an inability to concentrate;
- muscle cramps;
- heat rash;
- severe thirst – a late symptom of heat stress;
- heat exhaustion – fatigue, giddiness, nausea, headache, moist skin; and
- heat stroke – hot dry skin, confusion, convulsions and eventual loss of consciousness. This is the most severe disorder and can result in death if not detected at an early stage.
In order to prevent heat stress, the HSE advises, your risk assessment should consider:
- work rate – the harder someone works the greater the amount of body heat generated;
- working climate – this includes air temperature, humidity, air movement and effects of working near a heat source;
- employee clothing and respiratory protective equipment – may impair the efficiency of sweating and other means of temperature regulation; and
- employee’s age, build and medical factors – may affect an individual’s tolerance.
For further information and guidance on working safely in the summer see HSE’s guide on Managing workplace temperature.