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March 9, 2023

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Dangers of electromagnetic fields and radio frequencies at work

Electromagnetic Fields (EMF) and Radio Frequencies (RF) may be an invisible ever-present in our daily lives, but they can pose a significant risk to workers who are exposed to them in their workplace. Mike Stevens, a Chartered Safety Practitioner and CEO of Praxis42 examines the hidden dangers of EMF and RF…

Mike Stevens, Chartered Safety Practitioner and CEO of Praxis42

Whether it’s due to the power and level of exposure, how often the exposure occurs or even down to external factors like ensuring you protect employees at particular risk, such as expectant mothers, and those with active or passive implanted or body-worn medical devices.

It’s every employer’s responsibility (and every landlord who has EMF and RF sources) to assess and limit exposure to EMFs and RFs.

There is also an obligation to provide training to employees whose work brings them into contact with EMF and RF sources and ensure those who visit sites such as contractors or other workers are competent and trained.

EMF Regulations

The legislation in the UK is The Control of Electromagnetic Fields at Work Regulations 2016 (CEMFAW), which built on management systems already in place in the telecommunication, media & broadcast industries; health & emergency services and the armed forces – all environments commonly using equipment which produces EMFs and RFs, such as broadcast, mobile phone, radar and radio transmitters as well as some medical and manufacturing processes.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has produced an excellent guide called Electromagnetic fields at work, which not only provides a range of helpful information, it can help you through the steps needed to:

  • Identify where EMFs may be produced in your workplace or other places that workers visit
  • Assess the levels of exposure and how they are controlled e.g. exclusion zones
  • Identify who may be harmed and how
  • Establish safe systems of work
  • Control ongoing EMF risks through supervision, audit training and awareness
  • Introduce health surveillance

What are EMFs?

EMFs are produced whenever electric or electronic equipment is used. This includes everything from food mixers, mobile devices, microwave ovens or laptops through to hand-held tools, electric vehicles, plastic welding equipment or MRI scanners. To get technical, and to quote the guidance document provided by the HSE, they’re “static electric, static magnetic and time-varying electric, magnetic and electromagnetic (radio wave) fields with frequencies up to 300 GHz.”

Luckily, most of us don’t need to understand exactly what they are, but we do need to take action to ensure workers are protected from the adverse effects of exposure to certain frequencies and power levels. These effects vary based on the different frequencies, but symptoms include nausea, vertigo, muscle contractions and rises in core body temperature to name but a few.

The EMFs interfering with implanted or body-worn medical devices is one of the significant risks and management of this group of workers is essential. Additionally expectant mothers need to be included as a risk group and exposure to EMF and RF sources needs to be included in maternity risk assessments and dovetailed into workers’ safe systems of work.

Low-level workplaces

smartphoneIn most cases, the levels of EMFs in the workplace will be well within safe limits through the design of equipment. The equipment in most workplaces is therefore classed as low risk exposure. This means that for most employers, EMFs are already at a safe level. It is also likely that if your employees are at risk of being exposed to higher levels of EMFs, your organisation will already have assessed and managed those risks.

The HSE guidance sheet provides a good list of equipment considered low level, and also some which may exceed the Exposure Limit Values (ELV). It should be one of the first places you turn to assess and manage risk if you believe your organisation hasn’t looked deeply enough into the potential danger or where circumstances have changed leading to potentially higher levels of EMFs.

Protecting employees

It should be as much of a priority to protect workers from EMFs, as it is to protect them from all other risks. The principles of risk assessment apply as normal, however there may be a need to appoint someone competent to identify and assess risk, and establish suitable management controls and systems of work to protect all workers including employees and others such as visitors or contractors.

The sectors listed in the opening paragraphs are acutely aware of the potential risks of working with EMFs, but many organisations, typically manufacturers using high-powered equipment, have knowledge gaps in this area. Often employers with a mobile workforce involved in maintenance or repairs at sites with EMF sources can be unaware that it’s their responsibility to monitor and control those visits. They need to do this by engaging with the client, occupier or landlords to understand what hazards are present.

Landlords, occupiers and clients will often specify the level of competence, awareness and training required for workers to access premises and sites to ensure that they are fulfilling their responsibilities in protecting others from harm.

The process of assessing and limiting the risks is reassuringly familiar:

  • Assessment of risk – five steps approach
  • Consultation with employees
  • Measuring exposure versus Exposure Limit Values (ELV) and Action Levels (AL)
  • Establishing controls based on the findings
  • Employee information and training
  • Health surveillance

Those at particular risk

One particular wrinkle here is that whilst assessing the risks, there needs to be a way to identify specific employees who may be harmed and how. In particular, you’ll need to be able to identify workers who have:

  • Body-worn medical devices (BWMDs)
  • Passive implantable medical devices (PIMDs)
  • Active implantable medical devices (AIMDs)
  • Metal plates, artificial joints, pins or shrapnel in their body.

Examples of these medical devices include pacemakers, neurostimulators, hormone infusion pumps and cochlear implants, certainly things you don’t want EMFs disrupting.

I was recently involved in assessing the risks to a specific worker who had recently had an AIMD fitted following a heart-condition diagnosis. The worker was involved in outside broadcasts, an environment known to have high levels of EMFs due to lapel mics, hand-held mics, two-way walkie talkies and high-power generators and cables, all with the potential to interfere with the AIMD.

The process included understanding the particular AIMD and the manufacturer’s guidance, and gathering information on the EMF levels from the different devices at the typical distances from them. All of this knowledge was then used to assess the risk, and implement relevant controls for this particular worker.

Sensitive information

It’s worth noting that this is often sensitive information that employees or contractors may be reluctant to divulge for personal reasons; at the same time it’s the employer’s responsibility to take reasonable steps to gather this same information in order to assess who may be harmed and how, without falling foul of GDPR.

There’s no simple solution to this, but involving employees in the consultation process, and training, information sharing and open communication will help to make it clear why this information is needed, often resulting in employees volunteering the information willingly.

Don’t forget that workers’ health changes, so it’s a good idea to implement mechanisms to ensure that information is gathered regularly so you can make any reasonable adjustments to their work.

EMF training

Courses are available which are typically based on industry guidelines such as the Masts & Towers Safety Group (MATS), or as defined by landlords or premises owners such as Arqiva, or based on Ofcom advice, which all help employers, managers and workers understand the hazards and risks of EMFs in the workplace and how to manage them. Typically they commence with a one-day training course in a face-to-face format. This is followed by required refresher training (which is around an hours’ duration) and can be taken online through eLearning with an approved EMF Awareness certificate provided after successfully completing the course.

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