Working safely through the heatwave
On the 19th July 2022, the UK experienced its hottest temperature on record where the thermometer touched 40.3C in Lincolnshire. This followed the Met Office’s first-ever “Red Extreme” heat warning. Ordinarily, such warnings are issued to protect the vulnerable. However, July’s Met Office alert warned of population-wide adverse health effects, including serious illness and danger to life.
This month the Met Office have issued a further Amber warning for Central and Southern England and Wales – see https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/about-us/press-office/news/weather-and-climate/2022/extreme-heat-warning-issued-met-office
Given these extreme weather conditions, it is important for businesses to do what they can to protect the welfare of their employees.
UK Health and Safety Regulations
In the UK, no laws define when it’s too hot to work. This is because workplaces with hot processes—such as bakeries and foundries—would not be able to comply.
However, under the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, employers should provide a “reasonable” temperature in which to work. For HSE guidance on what is reasonable, see the HSE web site https://www.hse.gov.uk/temperature/is-it-too-hot-to-work.htm.
A number of health and safety risks are associated with heat, including dizziness, dehydration and fainting. Additionally, people exposed to high workplace temperatures may find it difficult to concentrate or work as effectively as usual.
Some ideas to manage the risks of working in the heat
Given the impact of the hot weather, there are number of simple steps employers can take to help alleviate discomfort due to the heat
- Consider flexible working. It might be possible to allow greater flexibility around when and where employees work during hot spells. For example, a temporary change in working hours—allowing people to work earlier or later—may allow colleagues to avoid commuting during the hottest part of the day. Greater flexibility may also make sense if public transport is impacted by the heat, making commuting difficult and time-consuming.
If manual labour is being undertaken, employees may also benefit from regular breaks to cool down.
- Relax your dress code. Although there’s no legal obligation to relax a dress code during hot weather, doing so will allow people to work more comfortably. For example, staff could be allowed to remove ties on a temporary basis.
- Adjust the workplace layout. Look for ways to alleviate high temperatures by making changes to the space your team is working in. Closing blinds during the day may help lessen the sun’s heating effects, and providing desk and pedestal fans can help increase air movement. Additionally, organisations could consider a layout change—moving workstations away from direct sunlight or pieces of equipment that give off heat.Given the predictions that current temperatures will become increasingly common in years to come, consider investing in air conditioning for the workplace.
- Keep an eye on people who may be particularly vulnerable. Although it’s important to consider the health needs of all employees, some staff members may be more susceptible to heat stress. These include pregnant women, older employees or those with medical conditions.
- Look after colleagues who work outdoors. As well as being exposed to high temperatures, outdoor workers are susceptible to the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. Remind outdoor workers to take sensible measures to protect themselves from the sun, for example wearing long sleeves, hats and high protection sun-screen on any uncovered skin. Encourage regular breaks in the shade and frequent hydration. The HSE have produced a handout leaflet “Keep your top on” which can be downloaded here: https://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg147.pdf
Organise a risk assessment If a workplace is continually experiencing high temperatures during the summer months, it may be sensible to undertake a full risk assessment. This will help them determine the best approach to protecting your employees during unusually hot weather. The HSE provides a useful heat risk assessment checklist here https://www.hse.gov.uk/temperature/assets/docs/thermal-comfort-checklist.pdf
The current hot weather may be welcome for holidaymakers during the summer months, but many workplaces in the UK are not equipped to deal with the current extreme temperatures. It makes sense to consider putting in place some simple common-sense measures to help mitigate the heat, reduce the risks and make your colleagues more comfortable.