Beat the heat: Strategies for a comfortable and safe workplace

Beat the heat: Strategies for a comfortable and safe workplace
Alastair Barrett
Alastair BarrettWhat No Safety Services Ltd

Posted: Tue 2nd Jul 2024

As summer approaches, temperatures tend to rise and heat waves are common even in places like England. This can make working in such conditions extremely uncomfortable and even dangerous.

Unfortunately, there is no legal maximum temperature limit for working in hot environments in the UK. However, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) does have regulations that require employers to maintain a comfortable working temperature, also known as 'thermal comfort'. What precisely does this mean, though?

What is thermal comfort?

Thermal comfort is a condition where a person feels neither too hot nor too cold. It is influenced by several factors, including:

  • Air temperature: This is the temperature of the air surrounding the body

  • Radiant temperature: This comes from thermal radiation, which is the heat which radiates from a warm object. Examples of radiant heat sources include the sun, fire, electric fires and ovens

  • Air velocity: This is the speed with which the air is travelling across the employee – it may help to cool them if it is cooler than the general environment

  • Humidity: The evaporation of sweat from our skin is our bodies’ main method of heat reduction, but less sweat can evaporate in humid environments

  • Clothing insulation: Being able to add layers of clothing when we feel cold and remove some when we feel hot, is a core way for us to regulate our temperatures. However, some companies prevent this ability when they need to enforce the wearing of a uniform of PPE

  • Metabolic heat from physical characteristics. Even if all of the above elements remain constant, it’s important to take into account the variable characteristics that differ from employee to employee. Size and weight, age, fitness level and sex can all play a part in how a person’s body deals with temperature

It’s not always solely seasonal variations which can create workplace heat though – it can also occur in specific environments due to the processes being used. For example, a glass-blowing studio would generate excessive heat all year round due to the furnaces involved in the craft.

Heat sources in the workplace

While hot weather can certainly make workplaces warmer, other sources of heat can also contribute to thermal discomfort. These include:

  • Machinery and equipment that generate heat

  • Lighting systems

  • Activities performed by employees, such as welding or working in kitchens

Effects of working in hot temperatures

Working in hot temperatures can lead to several health problems, including:

  • Heat stress: This is a condition that can occur when the body is unable to cool itself down effectively. Symptoms of heat stress include sweating, dizziness, fatigue, and muscle cramps

  • Heat exhaustion: This is a more serious condition that can occur if heat stress is not treated. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include headache, nausea, vomiting, and fainting

  • Heatstroke: This is a life-threatening condition that can occur if heat exhaustion is not treated. Symptoms of heatstroke include a high body temperature, confusion, seizures, and coma

How to stay cool at work

Here are some tips HSE recommends to keep temperatures as comfortable as possible:

  • Take regular breaks, depending on the nature of your work: Employees should be encouraged to take short breaks in air-conditioned rooms or shaded areas throughout the day

  • Stay hydrated with cold drinks, but avoid fizzy drinks: Employers should provide employees with access to cool drinks, such as water or sugar-free squash. Fizzy drinks should be avoided, as they can dehydrate you

  • Utilise air conditioning and fans: Air conditioning is the most effective way to cool down a workplace. However, fans can also be helpful, especially if they are used in conjunction with other measures to reduce heat gain, such as shading windows

  • Consider installing blinds on the windows for office workers

  • Wear layers of clothing and lighter versions of PPE: Wearing loose-fitting, lightweight clothing made from breathable fabrics can help to keep employees cool

  • If possible, change to working summer hours, i.e. starting earlier and finishing earlier in the day during the summer months. If possible, employers should try to schedule physically demanding tasks for cooler times of the day

  • Identifying susceptible workers: Some people are more susceptible to the effects of heat than others, such as older workers, pregnant women, and people with certain medical conditions. Employers should take steps to protect these workers from heat exposure

  • If you feel like your working conditions are too hot it’s time to talk to your employer – discuss the issues together to find solutions

Relevant resources

Alastair Barrett
Alastair BarrettWhat No Safety Services Ltd

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