The last time there was a heatwave, we unfortunately had some cases of heat exhaustion. Apart from providing suncream and water, and advising workers to wear cool, light clothing, what measures should we take?
Heat exhaustion from over-heating results in the loss of body salts and water from the body. If not treated promptly, it can lead to heat stroke. Remind first aiders of the signs and symptoms of the condition so that they can give timely assistance. If you notice someone has symptoms, get them to lie down in a cool place, remove excessive clothing (with dignity!), cool their skin with a wet sponge around the neck and armpits, and provide fluids, ideally water, fruit juice or a rehydration drink. If they do not recover within 30 minutes or their condition declines they will need further medical intervention.
Of course, heat exhaustion should be prevented in the first place. Even mild symptoms can make the casualty feel unwell, lose concentration and potentially be a danger to themselves or others. Sunscreen only protects against UV radiation, not from high temperatures and humidity. Cool, light clothing is helpful, as are lightweight hats when working outdoors.
Also, consider how to reconcile the need for coolness with any necessary PPE. Depending on the activity, overalls, gloves or respirators might be required, which can be hot and cumbersome, so ensure workers do not dispense with them. Instead, alter working conditions if possible, via shift changes or job rotation. Short sleeved high vis T-shirts might help, but not if working in direct sunlight.
Air conditioned workplaces shouldn’t be seen as a luxury. Ensure any air-conditioning units are serviced and fit for purpose ahead of high summer temperatures. Other options are evaporative air coolers and the new, more efficient, bladeless fans.
Advice for employers
In an ideal world, we would be able to avoid exposure to hot working environment, or at least reduce exposure. However, in a heat wave this isn’t always practical, and we therefore need to take measures to minimise the risk to employees. Things to consider include:
- Providing regular breaks. These should take place in cooler environments away from the sun, and away from other sources of heat, such as machinery. The hotter the environment and the more strenuous the work, the longer and more frequent the breaks should be.
- Under the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, employees must provide employees with drinking water and adequate ventilation, both of which help to manage a hot working environment.
- Appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) should be provided where necessary. For example, loose fitting, light colours etc.
- You should also consider whether the job could be done at a different time of day, in a different place, or whether the working environment can be modified, for example by providing air conditioning or dehumidifiers.
Remember, as an employer you have a legal obligation to undertake risk assessments. A good risk assessment will take into account factors such as temperature, helping you to protect your employees and you organisation, as well as helping you stay on the right side of the law.