It looks like Spring has finally arrived. At the time of writing this article, the weather across the UK has switched up a couple of gears and is expected to reach the mid to late 20’s in Southern England, and will be something of a shock to the system. As we all start to pack away the winter woollies and look hopefully towards a few months of t-shirt and shorts weather, we look at some of the dangers of heat stress for those who work outdoors, and what can be done to avoid this potentially life-threatening condition.
If you are lucky enough to be a school crossing patrol person (or Lollipop man/woman as we used to call them), a gardener, builder, farmer, zoologist, beach lifeguard, or any one of the countless outdoor occupations, you are all exposed to the elements, and this brings its own set of considerations for health and safety that your employer must consider, one of which is heat.
Dangers of Heat Stress
It is only a month since we wrote about the dangers of cold stress to workers, but the dangers of heat stress are every bit as real. Therefore, as the summer appears on the horizon over the next few months, those that work outdoors must take additional precautions to protect themselves from the heat, sun exposure, and dehydration.
Heat stress occurs when the body is unable to regulate its temperature as a result of excessively high temperature and can be a medical emergency if it is not controlled. The outdoor temperature is a key factor, but adding in the effects of wearing protective clothing, heavy work tools, and a high work rate (e.g. digging a hole in a garden), can increase the likelihood of this condition occurring. Symptoms of heat stress include :
- Impaired concentration
- Muscle cramping
- Heat rash
- Extreme thirst
- Passing out / fainting
- Heat exhaustion – extreme tiredness and fatigue, headache, nausea and clammy skin
If heat stress is not managed early, heat stroke can occur, which is characterised by hot and dry skin, confusion, convulsions, and eventual loss of consciousness. This is a much-underestimated condition, and can, if not managed, lead to death. If you see these symptoms in yourself or a fellow worker, do not take any chances, treat it as a medical emergency and call an ambulance.
The other health impacts of heat include sleep deprivation and exhaustion – both of which predispose you to more accidents due to the lack of capacity to think and operate as you would normally.
Some workers are more susceptible to extreme heat, in particular, those with existing health conditions that are dangerously exacerbated by extreme temperature, and employers must control the working conditions for such people. Those with asthma, heart disease, or are pregnant are all more vulnerable to extreme heat.
Controlling heat for those working outdoors
Employers must undertake risk assessments to identify, assess, and control any situation in which worker’s health and safety is at risk from extremes of temperature – a heat stress checklist is available on the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website.
There are many ways to protect workers from high levels of heat, taking into account the three key factors that increase the temperature of workers – weather conditions (including temperature, humidity, and wind direction), how physically demanding the work task is, and the clothing/protection being worn. If the temperature is excessive, employers should not require employees to work in such conditions; instead, they should consider moving them to other less exposed duties, altering their working hours, or encouraging them to take a long break. Other ways to ensure the safety of workers exposed to heat include:
- moving the task into the shade (or providing shade)
- provide cooling mechanisms such as fans or air conditioning
- providing appropriate and safe clothing that allows for better cooling and breathability
- providing cold drinks
- reducing the work rate required of the employee – this could be achieved by adjusting the work schedule to allow more time for work to be completed.
- changing the work process
- issuing permits to work – stating how long the employee is allowed to work
- providing a cooling off areas for periodic rest breaks
- allow employees to train and acclimate to working in warm conditions
- regular health checking of workers exposed to excessive heat
Beyond all the advice provided, it is essential that common sense is applied – those in positions of responsibility should use their discretion if they have any concerns regarding the well-being of their team.
If you have been seriously affected by working in excessive temperatures in your workplace, and this has caused you any loss, including to your health and finances, you may be able to seek compensation from your employer if they didn’t put effective controls in place to keep you safe.
At Russell Worth Solicitors we specialise in personal injury claims. If you have suffered a workplace injury and would like a free claim assessment, please call us now on 0800 028 2060 or complete our Online Claim Assessment.