Heatwave: ‘Employers should evaluate working environment in their thermal comfort risk assessment’
How businesses can ‘beat the heat’ during heatwaves. Sarah Valentine, from Eversheds Sutherland, explains.
During most seasons in the UK, it’s hard to imagine heat stress being a real danger. In fact there is nothing wrong with enjoying the heatwave, and for sun lovers, the long spell of warm weather is a treat particularly in time for the summer holiday season. But with these increasing summer temperatures, heat is now becoming a greater hazard for employers to manage in the workplace. As we begin to see the long heralded effects of climate change, employers will need to ensure practical and effective measures are in place to manage its employees thermal comfort.
Hot under the collar
The recent record breaking temperatures have reignited previous demands for the Government to set maximum workplace temperatures. A recent report by the Environmental Audit Committee points to an increase in the frequency of heatwaves in the future, resulting in a significant rise of heat-related deaths by 2050. It also highlighted the Government’s inadequate handling of the challenges extreme temperatures create, and questions whether workplace temperatures justify active regulatory intervention.
Heat stress – the law
It is acknowledged that moderate and extreme ambient temperatures increase the risk of occupational accidents. Studies have suggested that excessive heat can impair an individual’s cognitive processes. It also determined that women appear to be more vulnerable to cold environments with men having an increased vulnerability to hot environments (Barcelona Institute for Global Health).
Employers have a general duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of its employees. Explicit requirements for workplace temperatures state that ‘during working hours, the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings should be reasonable’ (Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992). What constitutes a reasonably comfortable temperature is of course highly subjective. The HSE defines thermal comfort as being ‘between 13C and 30C with acceptable temperatures for more strenuous work activities concentrated towards the bottom end of the range, and more sedentary activities towards the higher end.’
Workplace temperatures were further considered by the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers which sets out recommended workplace temperatures for factories at 13C, hospitals at 16C and offices 20C. Ultimately, what will be considered a reasonable temperature will depend on the work activity and the environmental conditions of the workplace.
For a number of employers the issues of managing thermal comfort is an all too familiar challenge. Some industries are affected more than others, but heat stress is an issue all year round for foundries and smelting operations, glass and rubber manufacturing plants and bakeries. Greater care by employers in these sectors is required to ensure the appropriate controls are present and the workforce are educated in recognising the symptoms of heat stress. The same is true of employers who may have vulnerable workers who are at increased risk from seasonal changes.
Beat the heat
An employer’s duty to risk assess thermal comfort is captured under the general duties to risk assess work activities in the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. The HSE has published various guidance and codes of practice to assist employers in the effective management of thermal comfort. The HSE’s website has a heat stress checklist and guidance to assist in completing a thermal comfort risk assessment to review environmental factors such as air temperature, radiant temperature, air velocity and humidity as well as personal factors such as clothing and work rate.
Management of thermal comfort should not be undertaken in isolation. Employers will need to have regard to other regulations in hot conditions which may apply to their work activities. For instance the Confined Spaces Regulations 1997 and the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) at Work Regulations 1992. An employer may need to consider if additional safeguards need to be introduced to reduce the risks of heat stress. For instance re-evaluation on PPE may be advisable if newer PPE may be lighter and provide improved levels of protection.
Employers in their thermal comfort risk assessment should evaluate the environment, the employees’ competencies and work activities. Suitable control measures could include:- permit to work at a slower rate, rotation of employees on a more frequent basis, scheduling for physically demanding work to be completed at cooler times of the day, providing more frequent breaks and drinking water, shading in the working environment and flexible working arrangements.
Additional monitoring may also be required by supervisors and managers to ensure employees continue to follow safe systems of work and wear the required PPE. Completing a similar risk review exercise will ensure compliance with the regulations and guidance, maintain a safe working environment and effectively manage the risks of working in extreme temperatures.
On the horizon
The UK is not alone in its approach to regulating workplace temperatures. Within Europe Germany, Spain and France have adopted the same approach in disseminating guidance on recommended maximum workplace temperatures. The same applies further afield in Canada, the USA and in warmer climes New Zealand. The only country the UK can look to in the regulation of workplace temperature is China. In 2012 regulations were introduced to reduce working hours in outdoor work activities during hot weather.
It remains to be seen whether we will shortly see the first HSE prosecution arising from an employer’s failure to adequately manage its employees’ thermal comfort. Although, with experts advising that extreme temperatures will be the ‘new normal’ as a product of global warming, employers should ensure heat hazards in the workplace are effectively controlled. As like the weather, we anticipate the HSE will in future turn up the heat when investigating potential breaches under this area of law.
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