Too hot to handle? Managing workplace risks in a heat wave

thermometerWith a summer heatwave possibly on the way, many of us are turning our minds to BBQs and beach visits. However, for those of us unlucky enough to be stuck in work, it’s important to be aware of the additional, and potentially deadly, risks the hot weather can bring.

What are the risks?

Most outdoor workers, such as construction workers, gardeners and maintenance staff, will already know about the risks from direct exposure to the sun. This is caused by UV rays, which in the short term can lead to sunburn, or possibly sunstroke, and can increase the risk of skin cancer. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website provides information for protecting your skin in the sun.

However, it is not just those who work outside who are put at risk in a heat wave. The soaring temperatures can have serious consequences for all workers, whether working indoors or outdoors.

Heat exhaustion, caused by an inadequate intake of fluids, can lead to nausea, weakness and light-headedness. If left untreated it can lead to fainting and even heatstroke – a potentially life-threatening condition where the body loses the ability to control its own temperature.

In addition to these risks, high temperatures can also cause lethargy and loss of concentration, increasing the chances of accidents at work. There is an increased risk of injuries through poor manual handling, or poor judgment when working with machinery, tools or chemicals. Workers need to pay extra attention to regulations such as PUWER or COSHH in order to reduce the risk of errors.

Stress and anxiety can also increase risk due to the heat, leading to poor decision making, as well as other health risks associated with work-related stress. It is therefore important to take a holistic approach to health and wellbeing in hot working environments.worker man  as he drinks from a plastic water bottle

Finally, drivers are often put at increased risk to the nature of their environment, and the extra concentration that is required to keep safe when out on the road. It is also important to consider the overall health of your drivers, as well as the increased risks to your grey fleet.

Advice for employers

In an ideal world, we would be able to avoid exposure to hot working environment, or at least reduce exposure. However, in a heat wave this isn’t always practical, and we therefore need to take measures to minimise the risk to employees. Things to consider include:

  • Providing regular breaks. These should take place in cooler environments away from the sun, and away from other sources of heat, such as machinery. The hotter the environment and the more strenuous the work, the longer and more frequent the breaks should be.
  • Under the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, employees must provide employees with drinking water and adequate ventilation, both of which help to manage a hot working environment.
  • Appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) should be provided where necessary. For example, loose fitting, light colours etc.
  • You should also consider whether the job could be done at a different time of day, in a different place, or whether the working environment can be modified, for example by providing air conditioning or dehumidifiers.

Remember, as an employer you have a legal obligation to undertake risk assessments. A good risk assessment will take into account factors such as temperature, helping you to protect your employees and you organisation, as well as helping you stay on the right side of the law.

Advice for employees

As an employee, you need to take personal responsibility for your safety, and those around you. With this in mind, there are a number of steps you can take, including:

  • Drink plenty of fluids – manual workers in a hot environment should aim for a pint of water an hour. Avoid drinks that contain caffeine, alcohol or lots of sugar as these can dehydrate you.
  • Eat frequently – make sure meals are balanced and light.
  • Wear sun cream when outside and remember to reapply regularly – sunburn should be avoided at all costs.
  • Avoid extreme changes of temperature – a cold shower or bath following exposure to heat can cause hypothermia or trigger a heart attack.
  • At the first sign of heat exhaustion move to a cooler location and rest, sipping a cool drink. Medical attention should be sought if your condition doesn’t improve.
  • Be particulary aware when working in already hazardous environments, such as with machinery, chemicals, or when working at height.
  • Look out for your colleagues. If you see someone struggling in the heat, take action and let somebody know.

Further Reading

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