Heat stress in the workplace - none like it hot!

Posted by Tom Walker on
For most of the year we seem to inhabit a grey, wet and cold world.  It might seem churlish then to complain about hot weather, still more so to talk of the dangers of heat stress in the workplace.  

However, it may be our very lack of familiarity with hot weather which poses the greatest risk - as many employers will be ignorant of the dangers, and some will be blissfully unaware that any failure to control workplace temperatures could put them in breach of the criminal law.

Heat stress is an unpleasant malady which occurs when the body is unable to regulate its own temperature and is caused not just by ambient heat, but also by work activity, work rate, humidity and inappropriate clothing.   The symptoms include loss of concentration, muscle cramps, heat rashes, fainting, exhaustion and occasionally heat stroke – it of course goes without saying that heat stress can have an extremely negative impact on employee welfare, performance and productivity.

Employers may wish to remind themselves of their legal obligation under the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 to provide a ‘reasonable’ temperature in the workplace – which means a temperature that provides a reasonable level of comfort for employees given the work being conducted. Employers would also be well-advised to conduct a suitable and sufficient assessment of the heat risks faced by their employees – and indeed would be required to do so by the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.

Such risk assessments should consider the type of activity being conducted, the nature of the employees and the equipment and clothing with which they are provided.   Appropriate steps need to be taken to reduce or control the risks posed by heat stress  - such steps could include alteration of the work processes in question; enhanced break and rehydration opportunities;   increased use of mechanical cooling equipment; and improvements to employee clothing/equipment. 

More detailed advice on such matters can of course be found on the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website, or sought from consultants. Indeed, the HSE recommends that employers consult with employees in relation to workplace temperature issues.  So before the thermometers twitch and any meteorologists have the opportunity to declare the ‘hottest day in Dinas Powys since records began’ it would be wise for employers to assess how they will deal with summer in their workplace and consult their employees if appropriate.  The cost of getting it wrong can be high and remember – when people are working – none like it hot!

About the Author

Tom specialises in criminal and regulatory law, and appears on behalf of both Prosecution and Defence.

Tom Walker
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