Coping With Excessive Heat In The Workplace

The next couple of months could see some of the hottest summer temperatures experienced in the UK. While these are traditionally the months when most people take a holiday and enjoy the weather, there are still many who have to continue working and find ways of coping with excessive heat in the workplace.

The Effects Of Heat in the Workplace

The body naturally reacts to high temperatures by sweating and increasing the flow of blood to the surface of the skin. The increased blood flow carries heat to the surface of the body and the sweat evaporates, removing heat from the body. Radiation and convection of air across the surface of the body can also cause loss of heat.

However, these processes can be restricted in hot and humid conditions or if a worker is performing heavy work or wearing clothing that restricts these processes. These impediments to heat loss can lead to conditions known as heat stress. If heat loss from the body is insufficient, the core body temperature will rise, leading to excess sweating, which in turn can lead to dehydration and an increased heart rate. If the core body temperature continues to increase, some of the body’s control mechanisms start to fail. This failure can lead to symptoms that can include fainting, heat exhaustion (giddiness, fatigue, and nausea), or heatstroke, which can lead to convulsions, loss of consciousness and even death.

Excessive heat can also exacerbate existing health conditions such as high or low blood pressure, heart problems, kidney disease and respiratory conditions.

If employees are required to work outside on a hot day, there is also the risk of skin damage. The damage may be in the form of sunburn, blistering, and even an increased risk of skin cancer in the long term.

Current Rules

The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 give rules and regulations relevant to a wide range of basic health, safety and welfare issues at a place of work. The many issues covered by these regulations include ventilation, lighting, windows, workstations and seating, washing facilities, escalators, traffic routes, and indoor workplace temperature.

The Code of Practice related to the regulations advises how to comply with the regulations. It states that there is a suggested minimum workplace temperature of 16°C, or 13°C if the work taking place involves rigorous physical effort. However, there is no upper limit for working temperature, though employers are under a legal obligation to provide a “reasonable” temperature in the workplace.

The absence of an upper limit is because it is possible to work safely in high-temperature workplaces like foundries, smelting operations, and glassworks provided appropriate controls are in force. As long as the management of working conditions is correct, there is no need to define an upper-temperature limit.

A “reasonable” temperature is open to interpretation, though the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers recommends the following temperatures for different types of work:

  • heavy work in factories 13°C
  • light work in factories 16°C
  • hospital wards and shops 18°C
  • office and dining rooms 20°C

Attempts at Change

When temperatures soar, a common complaint is that temperatures on buses, trains and the London Underground, often exceed the highest temperatures allowed for transporting livestock in the UK (30°C). Union representatives have also voiced concerns at conditions workers, and the public has to endure. The TUC has guidelines to help their representatives understand the union’s stance on working in high temperatures.

There have been attempts to review the absence of a maximum temperature limit in UK law. In 2009 the Government asked the HSE to review the situation. In 2016 Labour MP Ian Mearns tabled a motion in parliament that employers should ensure workplace temperatures do not exceed 30°C. However, neither of these initiatives produced change. Health and safety issues related to high workplace temperatures remain subject to risk assessment rather than a defined temperature.

Carrying Out A Risk Assessment

If there is a possibility of heat stress occurring a risk assessment must be carried out. Most solutions will include simple acts like removing clothing, taking cold drinks, having a fan in place or reducing work rate. However, these may not be practical in some work conditions, especially those that require protective clothing.

The first step, when carrying out an assessment, is to speak to the workers involved and their safety representatives to see if they are any signs of heat stress. If the problem is already this serious, you may need to consult a medical or another occupational health professional who is more experienced in determining the risks from high-temperature environments.

Significant factors to consider when performing the risk assessment are:

  • the work rate of employees
  • any clothing or protective equipment they are required to wear
  • the climate of the workplace, including humidity, air movement and how close sources of heat are to where work is carried out

Other factors include the employee’s age and fitness.

There are many ways the risk of heat stress can be reduced. Perhaps sources of heat can be removed or their impact reduced. It might be possible to change the process that causes heating to reduce the temperature, or a means of reducing heat could be introduced (for example, using fans or barriers).

Limiting how long someone works or delaying the start of a work period until the temperature has dropped to more manageable levels are other possible solutions.

Providing a means of monitoring the health of workers at risk of heat stress should also be considered.

The HSE website has more details on heat stress, and there is a heat stress checklist that advises how to identify heat stress risks and record the findings of a heat stress risk assessment.

You can also read a previous New Broom Training article on Thermal Comfort in the Workplace which partly talks about how to manage thermal comfort and deal with heat in the workplace.

New Broom Training Health and Safety consultants deliver professional Health and Safety training and are committed to delivering high quality Health and Safety training to suit the needs of the client.