Recent reports show that England is not ready to respond to extreme heatwaves this summer, with researchers warning of economic shocks and a breakdown in public services should the country experience more very high temperatures either this year or in the future.
Elsewhere we’re seeing more countries taking precautionary measures to protect workers against the changing climate, with Spain banning outdoor working during heatwaves a few weeks ago.
As the UK summer heat is ramping up, with reports of mini-heatwaves and Storm Oscar bringing in temperatures of 30 degrees Celsius in some parts of the nation, it’s time for the UK to look at how it can protect its workers from heat stroke and other heat-related illnesses or injuries.
Currently, temperatures in the workplace are covered by the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, which place a legal obligation on employers to provide a ‘reasonable’ temperature in the workplace.
They suggest that the minimum temperature in a workplace should be at least 16ºC, or if the work involves rigorous physical exertion, it can be 13ºC.
Unfortunately, there are no laws which specify that workers can stop working if the temperature gets too hot.
However, every employer has a responsibility to maintain a safe working environment and must protect the wellbeing of their employees under UK employment law. This legal obligation is otherwise known as ‘Duty of care’.
If an employer neglects their responsibility, and this results in someone falling unwell or being injured, that person may be able to claim compensation.
What is expected of my employer?
Employers are expected to do whatever is ‘reasonably practicable’ to safeguard their workers’ wellbeing, and they must provide a safe environment where staff are not at risk of falling ill from the heat.
This requires carrying out regular risk assessments and acting on the results.
Employers must also take into consideration those with existing health conditions that could be affected to a greater extent by the high temperatures, such as those who are medically vulnerable or pregnant.
It is ultimately up to the employer to decide if it is too hot to work, but if you are uncomfortable, then you should speak to your employer as they are obliged to act reasonably and provide a safe working environment.
What are the potential consequences of working in hot temperatures?
Working in hot temperatures can lead to heat stress, which can be made evident through several different symptoms. It can affect individuals in different ways and, of course, some people are more susceptible to it than others.
Some of the symptoms of heat stress are:
- A lack of concentration
- Muscle cramps
- Heat rash
- Severe thirst/dehydration
- Heat exhaustion
- Heat stroke
How can you reduce the risk of heat stress?
It is important that employers are aware of the actions which can be taken to limit the risk of heat stress. The Health and Safety Executive offers a thorough list of steps which can be taken.
Some of the key pointers are:
- Remove or reduce the sources of heat where possible (Consider fans, air conditioning, physical barriers that reduce exposure to heat).
- Provide aids where possible to reduce the work rate.
- Regulate the length of exposure to hot environments e.g., allowing staff to work at cooler times of the day or providing rest breaks and rest facilities in cooler conditions.
- Prevent dehydration: provide cool water in the workplace and encourage workers to drink frequently in small amounts before, during (where possible) and after work.
- Identify employees who are more susceptible to heat stress because of an illness, condition or medication that may contribute to the early onset of heat stress, e.g., pregnant women or those with heart conditions.
It should be remembered, that if staff become ill from the heat, especially those who are vulnerable or with underlying health conditions, employers could find themselves involved in a personal injury dispute.
It is, therefore, crucial that employers follow their duty of care to all staff, carry out risk assessments when necessary, and act accordingly to prevent staff from falling unwell or being injured.