Working in extreme heat: advice for construction workers

Another week brings yet another Met Office warning of extreme temperatures in the UK, with the group issuing its first-ever ‘Red warning’ for exceptional heat.

It predicts that the mercury could hit 40°C in some parts of the country, as today and Tuesday are set to be the hottest of the week. The South East will be particularly affected.

With a large part of the construction workforce operating outside, the hot weather presents a serious risk to the health and safety of workers carrying out their business.

Half of tradespeople are worried about getting burnt while working outdoors, according to a recent Toolstation poll, while more than a fifth admit to neglecting sun protection when working on a job.

Construction News explores what rights employees have when working in extreme heat and what firms can do to protect their staff.

What is the maximum temperature in the workplace?

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), there is no legal minimum or maximum temperature for the workplace.

But the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, which aim to protect workers, require employers to provide a “reasonable temperature”.

Whether the temperature is “reasonable” depends on the type of work activity being carried out and the environmental conditions of the workplace.

What is thermal comfort and how is it measured?

Thermal comfort can be used to measure whether the temperature that people are working in is reasonable. It refers to a worker’s state of mind, whether they feel too hot, and considers a range of environmental, work-related and personal factors.

“Thermal comfort is not measured by room temperature, but by the number of employees complaining of thermal discomfort,” states the HSE.

The regulator adds that morale and productivity can be affected by thermal discomfort, while health and safety can also be at risk.

For example, people working in uncomfortable heat are more likely to behave unsafely because it affects their ability to make decisions. A person’s ability to carry out manual tasks can also deteriorate.

How can employers protect staff working outside?

Although employers are almost powerless to control the outside temperature for workers, the HSE recommends several ways they can protect staff. These include:

  • Rescheduling work to cooler times of the day;
  • Providing more frequent rest breaks and introducing shade to rest areas;
  • Introducing shade in areas where individuals are working;
  • Providing free access to cool drinking water;
  • Encouraging the removal of personal protective equipment (PPE) when resting to help encourage heat loss; and
  • Educating workers about recognising the early symptoms of heat stress.

What is the advice on PPE use in extreme heat?

Employees may not wear PPE properly in extreme heat because of discomfort, states the HSE. This makes working on site unsafe and employers are encouraged to consider this risk.

Firms can make sure workers are not wearing any more PPE than is needed for their work to make them more comfortable. Alternative designs for uniforms using lighter materials can also be considered.

Workwear comprised of multiple layers can be helpful for workers to be able to make adjustments, based on their personal comfort.

High-factor sunscreen of at least SPF15 is recommended on exposed skin by the HSE.

How should employees raise concerns?

Workers can raise issues with their manager, supervisor or union representative, according to the HSE.

It says that if a significant number of employees are complaining about thermal discomfort, employers should carry out a risk assessment and act on the results.

For more information on working safely in the heat, check the HSE website here.

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