During the summer months we can look forward to some hot weather, however, it is not what most people consider to be ideal working conditions and it carries risks whether you work inside or out.
What constitutes acceptable working temperatures?
Under the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, the temperature inside workplace buildings, during working hours, must be ‘reasonable’. But what is meant by ‘reasonable’?
Health and Safety legislation does not refer to maximum temperatures, but it states, “the employer must provide a working environment which as far as is reasonably practicable, is safe and without risks to health.” Therefore whatever the temperature and measures taken to control it, the result must be a workplace that is safe and without risk to health.
What does it mean in practice to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of employees at work? We want employees to remain safe and healthy even when they are not at work, so what advice should we give them?
People working indoors have a broad mix of conditions to cope with, ranging from those who work in air conditioned offices to others who are in accommodation that offers little or no defence against outside temperatures.
People who particularly need our sympathy are those who work in premises that are hot and humid at the best of times, such as kitchens. High outside temperatures usually make things so much worse and there may appear to be little that can be done to improve the conditions because of the nature of the work being carried out.
Adequate ventilation must be ensured. Additional fans may be needed and efficient means for extracting stale air. In the worst cases, it may be necessary to call on the services of a ventilation engineer to solve the problem.
It is in everyone’s interest to address these issues because, apart from the risk to health, people who are working in premises that are too hot and humid will be uncomfortable and less efficient. That in turn is likely to lead to lower productivity and increased risk of accidents.
Outdoor workers run major risks from sunburn, sunstroke and heat exhaustion and the risks typically increase for those involved in heavy physical work.
If adequate precautions are not taken, there are further risks with the possibility of rashes, burns or even skin cancer. The people most at risk are those who have fair skins and who don’t tan quickly. Whatever your susceptibility, good sun protection creams may help.
Recommended precautions, however, include frequent and plentiful drinks (clean water being preferable to other types of drink), with regular rest breaks in a cool place. Clothing should be worn to protect from the effects of direct radiation but, for obvious reasons, it should be light and loose fitting to allow body heat to escape easily.
Some people are more vulnerable to the effects of heat than others. A good example is pregnant workers.
Apart from personal consequences for the mother, breastfeeding may also be impaired by heat dehydration.
Regardless of temperature, employers are required to undertake specific risk assessments for pregnant workers. Typical temperatures in the workplace and the effects of particularly warm spells of weather should be included as part of such assessments.
Simple arrangements need to be made to combat the effects of excessive heat, such as ensuring adequate rest provision, along with suitable refreshment facilities.
So in general, what should employers do?
The first task is to assess the problem. People’s comfort depends on a number of factors including humidity, air movement and change, heat sources associated with the work and any protective clothing that has to be worn. It is fair to say that if most people are complaining about the heat, then action needs to be taken regardless of thermometer readings.
Alongside assessing the problem, it is also worth assessing the effectiveness of control measures that are already in place. Is the air conditioning in need of maintenance or repair? Are window blinds broken? Are there sufficient fans and are they strategically placed? Is there an adequate supply of clean drinking water?
Other, less routine, possibilities includes examining job design or organisation of the works to move people away from direct heat sources (including windows, for example). Heat gain from windows can also be controlled at little additional cost by applying reflective film.
The next task is to ensure employees know how best to cope with the hot temperatures and, perhaps, relax such things as dress code. Employees should be actively encouraged to take plenty of drinks. Water coolers might encourage people to drink more water rather than other drinks, particularly anything containing caffeine. Outside workers in particular need to be able to recognise the symptoms of heat stress and how to deal with them.
If the problem is persistent, it may be appropriate to look at longer term solutions such as installing air conditioning or upgrading an aging system. Even small portable air conditioning units can make a useful contribution.
Although the law is vague when it comes to precise numbers, that doesn’t mean we are without authoritative guidance.
In terms of maximum temperature, the World Health Organisation recommends 24ºC(that is 75ºC). The Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers recommends an acceptable temperature range for most types of work as 16ºCto 23ºC(that is 61ºFto 72ºF). However there are different ideal temperatures suggested for different workplaces such as 20ºCfor offices, 19ºC for hospital wards, 18ºCfor shops and 16ºCfor warehouses.
Given the cold and wet that we have to cope with for most of the year, we should be able to enjoy the occasional heat wave. We are all responsible for each other’s welfare, including employers and employees. So let’s do all we can to keep our cool as well as our safety and health during the hot weather.
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