The heat is on
The impact of working outdoors in hot weather and the practical steps that employers can take to protect their colleagues.
19 July 2022 was exceptional for two reasons: first it was the hottest day in parts of the UK since records began and second, it was the first time that the Met Office issued a Red Extreme Heat Warning. Both factors feed into the consistent prediction that extreme hot weather is going to continue. When working outdoors, hot weather is a workplace hazard like any other and employers must take steps to manage the risk associated with it.
The first step is to recognise that working outdoors in hot weather is hazardous. The recent death of a soldier on 23 July only goes to reinforce the lethal effects of strenuous activity in hot weather. Heat exhaustion can kill or cause serious illness, and like any workplace hazard, it must be assessed and appropriate action taken. So, practically, what steps can a diligent employer take to assess and manage the risks to their colleague from working outdoors in hot weather?
The next step is to acknowledge that the risk exists and document it in your workplace risk assessment and then go on to consider whether a) the risk can be eliminated completely or b) what control measure can be adopted to reduce the risk to as low as is reasonably practicable.
For operatives working in sectors as diverse as construction, agriculture and forestry, event management, hospitality and leisure, traffic management and highways, working outdoors is a necessity and cannot be eliminated. In this situation the focus has to be on available control measures to reduce the effects of working outdoors in hot weather conditions.
Before exploring control measures, it is worth just reminding ourselves of the signs of heat exhaustion. The NHS describes the obvious signs of heat exhaustion as:
- dizziness and confusion;
- excessive sweating and pale clammy skin;
- cramps in the stomach, arms or legs;
- fast breathing or elevated pulse rate;
- a high temperature — 38 degrees Celsius;
- being very thirsty.
A key consideration is ensuring that your supervisors and first aider or aiders and staff are aware of these signs. Next is sharing this important information with your workforce so that they can monitor themselves and their colleagues and take action.
Taking action requires an employer to assess the nature of the risks, their impact on relevant workers and to then put in place a safe system of work. Start with the obvious factors and then refine your assessment based on the work activities undertaken. The Health and Safety Executive’s “Sun protection six-point code” offers a useful starting point:
- keep your top on;
- wear a hat with a brim or a flap that covers the ears and the back of the neck;
- stay in shade wherever possible especially during breaks;
- use high-factor sunscreen;
- keep hydrated;
- check your skin for moles and spots.
I suggest that, where possible, employers with operatives working outdoors in hot weather conditions should be taking steps to make these practical steps available to their workforce. Employers should be reviewing any outdoor work PPE to establish if it provides protection in hot weather or might be making the situation worse.
Your PPE supplier should be able to advise on breathable fabrics or other more reflective colours that might be available. You should provide hats and high-factor sunscreen. Hydration is vital and an adequate supply of chilled drinking water essential.
In terms of how work is carried out, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) offers some practical tips:
- reschedule the work to cooler times;
- provide more frequent rest breaks and shading in rest areas;
- provide free access to cool drinking water;
- introduce shading in areas where individuals are working;
- encourage the removal of PPE during rest breaks;
- educate workers about the early signs of heat stress.
However you organise your workplace activities, you need to demonstrate that the impact of working outdoors in hot weather has been considered and action taken. If you choose to take no action, then be prepared to have to explain why, in the event that a workplace incident involving hot weather occurs.
In summary then, employers should be doing the following:
- acknowledging that working outdoors in hot weather is a workplace hazard that needs to be addressed;
- reviewing your systems of work to ensure that you are doing all you reasonably can to protect your workforce from the effects of working outdoors in hot weather;
- providing your colleagues with training about the effects of hot weather when working outdoors;
- be prepared to demonstrate what you have done and why. If you do nothing then you should be able to justify that decision;
- if you are in any doubt, take advice from a health and safety profession.
At the end of the day, the risks associated with working outdoors in hot weather are well-publicised and doing nothing will never be enough.
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