Health and safety: Don't break a sweat this summer
16 August 2017
It goes without saying that companies should prioritise the health and safety of workers all year round. However, as temperatures continue to rise over the coming months and allergies prevail, summer is certain to bring a particular set of risks for health and safety professionals.
While it is common to joke about the unpredictable nature of British weather, patterns such as sudden heatwaves can have serious implications for businesses, leaving many employers unprepared for the extra dangers higher temperatures can bring. By taking the appropriate steps to assess heat-associated risks before heatwaves occur and creating a comfortable and safe working environment, companies can safeguard staff wellbeing and minimise any negative impact on employee productivity over the warmer summer months.
While UK legislation has stipulated a minimum workplace temperature for years, it does not state a maximum temperature. However, under the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, Regulation 7 does provide employers with the following guidance: "During working hours, the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be reasonable."
In the event that 10 per cent of employees complain about workplace temperature, an employer has an obligation to undertake a thermal risk assessment. However, with the side-effects of overheating including low productivity and even illness, determining whether the workplace temperature is "reasonable" is not only an employer's legal responsibility, it is also in their best interests. In order to do this, employers must undertake a thermal risk assessment and then act on the findings of the assessment by implementing suitable controls. As well as providing sufficient thermometers, perhaps the most revealing way of doing this is by simply asking employees whether they are satisfied with the temperature of their working environment.
When taking steps to combat overheating in the workplace, businesses should opt for temporary controls that can be removed or adjusted in the autumn as the weather changes and temperatures drop. Perhaps the most common way of maintaining a comfortable temperature for workers during the summer months is air conditioning or ventilation, which increases air movement in order to prevent workers from becoming uncomfortably hot.
As air conditioning units can range from small ones that solely lower air temperature to larger ones that also deal with humidity and air movement, businesses should give careful thought to choosing a solution that will effectively deal with the conditions of their specific workplace environment. To ensure that efforts to cool the office do not result in the opposite extreme, companies should avoid allowing draughts to blow directly onto employees.
Air conditioning systems can also play an important role in managing the impact of allergies such as hayfever within the workplace. While it can be tempting during warm weather to open a window to let fresh air circulate, doing so can expose employees to pollen and other allergens that can lead to unpleasant symptoms for many workers. By choosing instead to recirculate and filter air, businesses can protect workers from external triggers, whilst still keeping the internal temperature at a comfortable level.
When working outdoors, ensuring PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) is suitable for use in warmer temperatures is essential, especially where workers are prone to generating heat through manual activity. By encouraging employees to layer-up and not wear a higher protection factor than necessary, health and safety professionals can prevent overheating by allowing workers to simply remove excess clothing as the temperature rises. In order to maximise employee comfort, businesses should opt for cooler designs and materials when choosing PPE, but also more generally be prepared to relax any uniform rules or dress code when appropriate. To maximise workers' protection against the sun, it is also important to promote the usage of sunhats and sunscreen (of an appropriate SPF) as well as good-quality sunglasses.
Whether workers are based outdoors or within an office, a key priority during the warmer months should be ensuring that staff remain adequately hydrated. As well as providing employees with an easily-accessible source of cool water, encouraging staff to choose water over caffeinated drinks such as tea and coffee will help them to avoid dehydration and avoid the onset of heat stress. However, it is worth bearing in mind that there is little use providing a water cooler if employees have no chance to access it. Companies can boost the amount workers are likely to drink by providing them with regular breaks, and where outdoor workers lack access to a running tap should provide water bottles which can be easily transported on site.
The increasingly busy schedules of health and safety professionals mean that it can be all too easy for issues associated with heatwaves to creep up on businesses, resulting in policies and procedures being implemented at the last minute. However by thinking carefully now about how to protect staff wellbeing during hot weather, companies can avoid being caught out and maintain productivity levels when the UK gets a rare burst of sunshine.
Nigel Crunden is business specialist at business solutions provider Office Depot.