March 26, 2015

If you can’t stand the heat…

We are all looking forward to enjoying the summer months – but working in a warm office can be very uncomfortable for some employees.

Heat stress occurs when the body fails to control its internal temperature.The effects of heat stress can vary from person to person, likewise some people are more susceptible to it than others.  Naturally the body will react to heat by increasing the blood flow to the skins surface and then begin to perspire; the combination of the increased blood flow to the skin surface and sweating cools the body.

In many working environments the issue relating to heat stress can be present all year round and not just during the warmer months of the year; also it is not always obvious to walk through a working environment that there is a  risk of heat stress.

Currently the law does not specify a minimum workplace temperature; although it is advisable that the workplace temperature should be at least 16C or 13C within a workplace where the work is physical.

The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 define requirements to be taken into consideration in relation to thermal comfort within the working environment.

The application of the Regulation will depend upon the nature of the work; ‘The temperature in workrooms should provide reasonable comfort without the need for special clothing.  Where such a temperature is impracticable because of hot or cold processes, all reasonable steps should be taken to achieve a temperature which is as close as possible to comfortable’.

A workroom, as defined by the Regulation is ‘a room where people normally work for more than a short period of time’, and if the temperature of the workroom be uncomfortably high due to certain factors including the design of the building or the work that is being completed for example hot work, then all reasonable steps are to be taken to maintain a comfortable temperature.  Steps that could be used to achieve thermal comfort include:

  • Insulating hot plant or pipework;
  • Providing air cooling equipment;
  • Shade windows, or
  • Sitting workstations away from sources of heat.
  • Within instances where the thermal working environment cannot be made comfortable, local cooling should be provided and in extreme hot weather, fans and ventilation may be used as a replacement.

In cases where the aforementioned are not supporting  thermal comfort within the working environment , then as a last resort suitable protective clothing and rest facilities are to be provided and where practicable systems of work in place that restrict the amount of time that an employee is exposed to an uncomfortable temperature.

In order to determine a comfortable working environment for employees, employers should:

1. Complete a thermal risk assessment, considering the:

  • work rate;
  • working climate;
  • workers clothing and where applicable any respiratory protective equipment; and
  • workers age, build and any medical factors.

2. Act upon the finding s of the risk assessment by introducing suitable controls for the working environment, bearing in mind that the effect may only be seasonal, meaning that the controls only need to be implemented temporarily.

Ideally, to create a comfortable working environment, there are a number of controls that can be adapted to remove or reduce the sources of the heat by:

  • Controlling the temperature by changing the process or use fans or air conditioning units or use a physical barrier;
  • Provide mechanical aids by means of reducing the work rate of employees;
  • Prevent dehydration by providing cool water and encourage employees to drink it frequently, including before, during and after work;
  • Provide personal protective equipment, this may include personal cooling systems or uniforms made from a more breathable fabrics;
  • Provide training in relation to awareness of heat stress;
  • Allow workers to acclimatise within their working environment in order to identify which workers are acclimatised or assessed as ‘fit to work’;
  • Identify workers who are more sensitive to the effects of heat stress; this could be due to an illness, condition or medication (advice should be sought from an occupational health professional);
  • Monitor the health of employees at risk, where the risk of heat stress remains after introducing as many controls as is practicable (advice should be sought from an occupational health professional).

The Regulations discussed only apply to employees; they do not apply to members of the public, for example temperature complaints from customers within a shopping centre or a cinema.Contact us for more usual Health & Safety advice.

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About the author

Stacey Rowe