2013 Heatwave: Lessons to be learned
While many people enjoy warm conditions, the death of two soldiers on a training exercise in Wales in July threw the issue of workplace temperatures into the spotlight again.
The heat seen this summer prompted the TUC to publish a new briefing on temperature in the workplace calling for better controls around the issue.
The briefing, Heat – The Case for a Maximum Temperature at Work, said, “When the workplace gets too hot it is more than just an issue about comfort. If the temperature goes too high then it can become a health and safety issue. If people get too hot, they risk dizziness, fainting, or even heat cramps. In very hot conditions the body’s blood temperature rises. If the blood temperature rises above 39°C, there is a risk of heat stroke or collapse… Blood temperatures at this level can prove fatal and even if a worker does recover, they may suffer irreparable organ damage.”
The publication of the briefing was followed by the death of two soldiers during a Ministry of Defence (MOD) training exercise on the Brecon Beacons on Saturday 13th July 2013.
According to media reports, six men on the training course collapsed with heat exhaustion, and were airlifted to hospital where two were pronounced dead and a third is said to be fighting for his life.
The TUC briefing argued that the lack of a legal maximum is “a major omission” and also calls for a legal duty on employers to protect outside workers by providing sun protection, water, and organising work so that employees are not outside during the hottest part of the day.
Furthermore IOSH warned employers and workers that heat stress is “a common, yet often ignored hazard in the workplace”.
A statement from the health and safety professional body said, “While it is widely acknowledged that high temperatures can pose a considerable health risk, employers may not appreciate that toiling in hot environments also escalates safety risks.”
Phil Bates, Senior Policy and Technical Adviser at IOSH, said, “Working in very hot conditions is linked with lower mental alertness and physical performance, and consequently more injuries. Factor in raised body temperature and physical discomfort and it’s easy to see how employees can divert their attention from tasks and overlook everyday safety procedures.”
He added, “Many people are exposed to heat in some jobs, outdoors or in sweltering indoor environments. Operations involving soaring air temperatures, radiant heat sources, elevated humidity, direct physical contact with hot objects, or demanding physical activities have a high potential for causing heat-related illness. While often considered a summer problem, many companies need to take preventative measures throughout the year, regardless of where they are located.”
Public Health England, part of the Department of Health, also published advice for coping with the heat in its Heatwave Plan for England 2013. The Met Office’s Heat Health warning system can be found on the Met Office website.
The HSE has previously defined thermal comfort in the workplace by noting that, “An acceptable zone of thermal comfort for most people in the UK lies roughly between 13°C (56°F) and 30°C (86°F), with acceptable temperatures for more strenuous work activities concentrated towards the bottom end of the range, and more sedentary activities towards the higher end.”
The HSE warns on its website that people working in uncomfortably hot (and cold) environments are more likely to behave unsafely. For example, workers might not wear personal protective equipment properly in hot environments, or the ability to concentrate on a task may decline, increasing the risk of errors.
The HSE says the term “thermal comfort” describes a person’s state of mind in terms of whether they feel too hot or too cold.
However, the guidelines from the HSE on the issue of thermal comfort in workplaces note that “there’s more to it than just room temperature”. Factors such as humidity and sources of heat in the workplace, as well as what employees are wearing and how strenuous the work is, all come into play.
Finally, the safety watchdog recommends managers conduct a thermal comfort risk assessment, noting that thermal comfort is important for morale and productivity, as well as health and safety.