Employers should ensure staff, especially those who are first aid trained, know the signs of heat-related ill health if periods of extreme heat are to become more common in the UK, workplace health experts have said.
With climate scientists predicting that heatwaves will become more frequent, the British Standards Institute’s global head of health, safety and wellbeing, Kate Field, said employees should understand the signs and risks of thermal-related illnesses such as heat stroke, dehydration and skin cancer to help keep colleagues safe and monitor their own wellbeing.
The temperature in England surpassed 40C for the first time on record today (19 July), but it is expected to cool down from tomorrow.
Organisations should also identify if there are particular workers who are more at risk of heat-related illness, including those taking certain medications, experiencing the menopause, and older workers.
She said: “Organisations need to start considering sustainable interventions to keep workers safe and healthy during adverse weather conditions including heatwaves – they will become more frequent.
“As well as the risks associated with heat stroke, high temperatures can increase other risks such as slipping while holding a sharp tool due to sweaty hands and increases human error, as concentration is affected – so a worker may forget to guard a machine or make a calculation error when mixing chemicals.”
Heat health risks at work
Susie Lamont, an occupational health advisor at PAM Group, said that anyone who feels like they could be overheating at work or suffering from heat exhaustion must be told to stop what they are doing and to attempt to cool down, as they could be at risk of heat stroke.
“The symptoms of heat exhaustion may include feeling overheated, sweating profusely, thirst, headache, cramps in arms or legs and dizziness.
“If moving into the shade and drinking cold water, sprinkling the body with cold water and lying down and raising legs slightly, doesn’t relieve symptoms, this can easily turn into heat stroke, which if left untreated can cause the person’s internal ability to control their temperature to break down and may lead to serious health complications, such as organ failure,” she said.
“As these once exceptional heatwaves become more common in the UK, employers will need to factor heat risks into their risks assessments and create clearer guidelines for managers, instead of just looking at traditional health and safety risks.”
Employees with long term health conditions were also likely to see their symptoms exacerbated by the heat, including people with multiple scleroisis, respiratory conditions, heart disease and auto-immune conditions including lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
Christine Husbands, managing director at nurse-led wellbeing service RedArc, said: “Employers should remind their staff about the support available within their employee benefits for those with long-term health conditions. Employees may need condition-specific advice about how to cope not just in this heatwave but over the course of the summer and during overseas holidays.”
Field said changes to the design and function of their office spaces could be considered in the medium- to long term, including “thermal comfort” measures. She urged employers to look for examples of best practice in other countries, as heat risk management is common in places like Australia, the Middle East and African nations.
Unions have called for a maximum workplace temperature to be enshrined in law, a move that has been backed by several MPs.