Health and safety in a heatwave

Wednesday July 13, 2022

Summer is here and, for many, June has been a scorcher. The UK recorded its hottest day of the year for three days running, with temperatures peaking at 32C on 17th June.

Although temperatures have cooled since then, there’s plenty of time for more hot weather. While this is great news for holidaymakers, it can cause serious problems for your staff. From fighting dehydration to stopping sunburn, here’s our guide to health and safety in a heatwave.

What does the law say about working in heat?

Workplace temperatures are covered in a general sense by the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992. These make it the duty of every employer to ensure “thermal comfort” by providing a “reasonable” temperature in the workplace.

The law gives a minimum working temperature, but not a maximum. This is because certain workplaces such as glassworks and foundries are extremely hot by design, but can still be made safe through the use of protective equipment.

How can I keep indoor employees cool?

You probably don’t work in a foundry, but high temperatures can also be a risk in a traditional office environment. Working in heat can lead to exhaustion and dehydration, as well as low morale and poor productivity. Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to keep employees comfortable on hot days. These include:

  • Providing desk or ceiling fans
  • Moving workstations away from direct sunlight
  • Relaxing the dress code to allow for cooler clothing
  • Ensuring that windows can be opened
  • Installing blinds to provide shade
  • Giving employees plenty of breaks and encouraging them to drink water
  • Providing cold water dispensers
  • Providing air conditioning

If you haven’t already, you should update your risk assessment to include risks associated with working in hot weather. You should identify any employees who are especially vulnerable, such as the elderly or those with underlying health conditions. If necessary, you could consider letting these people work from home on hot days.

What about outdoor employees?

People who work outdoors are especially vulnerable in hot weather. Skin cancer is one of the most common cancers in the UK, so it is important to be careful when working outdoors. You should encourage your staff to take the following precautions:

  • Wear a high factor sun cream and top it up regularly throughout the day
  • Wear clothing that covers the arms and legs
  • Wear a hat with a brim to protect the face and neck
  • Check skin regularly for new spots or moles, and seek medical advice immediately if anything looks suspicious

This applies to everyone, but those with fair skin, red hair or a large number of moles should be especially vigilant.

As well as the risk of direct exposure to sunlight, outdoor workers also have an increased risk of dehydration and heat exhaustion. Once again, there are some steps you can take to keep them safe:

  • Reschedule work to avoid the hottest parts of the day
  • Encourage workers to drink plenty of water, and provide free water if necessary
  • Encourage staff to remove PPE when resting to help them cool down
  • Train employees to recognise the early warning signs of heat exhaustion.

What should I do if an employee is suffering from heat stroke?

In extreme cases, working in high temperatures can lead to heat stroke. This is a very serious condition, and should be treated as a medical emergency. Possible signs of heat stroke include a high body temperature, a throbbing headache, dizziness, confusion and unconsciousness.

If you suspect that an employee is suffering from heat stroke, you should call an ambulance immediately. While waiting for assistance, you should move them to a cool, shaded area and try to cool them down. Although it seems counterintuitive, it is important not to give fluids to a heat stroke victim. This is because they may not be in a fit state to drink safely.

Summer should be a pleasant time for everyone, even those at work. If you have any questions about keeping your staff cool and comfortable, don’t hesitate to contact your local H&S Dept.

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