How to Protect Workers Against Heat Stress

worker working in high temperature in engineering workshop. Could be suffering from the effects of heat stress

This week, the UK is experiencing the “most severe heatwave on record”. Peak temperatures hit 95F (35C) at the start of the week and have yet to drop below 93F  (33.9C) in some places. The coronavirus pandemic has led to an increase in the number of people working from home, but many industries have continued on-site operations. Whether your employees work in a factory, on a construction site or in hot environments such as bakeries and foundries, how do you protect them from heat stress?

What is Heat Stress?

Employees who work in hot environments or are exposed to extreme heat are vulnerable to the risk of heat stress. This potentially dangerous condition occurs when the body becomes so hot that it can no longer control its internal temperature leading to loss of function and ill-health.

Heat stress can lead to various health complications such as heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat rashes and heat cramps. There will be an increased risk of a workplace accident or injury due to discomfort, pain, disorientation, dizziness, sweaty palms and loss of concentration. Heat can also impact the effectiveness of personal protective equipment (PPE), for example, if safety goggles fog up the wearer’s visibility will be impaired.

Who is at Risk?

If the temperatures rise high enough, anyone working in hot conditions for a long time, without sufficient breaks, is at risk of developing heat stress. However, some workers are exposed to a higher level of work due to the nature of their workplace. Firefighters, bakery workers, farmers, tree planters, mill workers, factory workers, miners, boiler room workers and construction workers are often required to work in hot conditions.

Some employees will be more at risk than others. The risk of heat stress increases for workers in any of the following categories:

  • Over 65 years of age
  • Overweight
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Regular user of certain medications
  • Other underlying health conditions

What are the Signs of Heat Stress?

Exposure to extreme heat will affect everybody differently, but there are some common effects of heat stress to look out for. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) highlights the following signs for concern:

  • An inability to concentrate
  • Muscle cramps
  • Heat rash
  • Severe thirst
  • Fainting
  • Heat exhaustion
  • Heatstroke – hot dry skin, confusion, convulsions, loss of consciousness and ultimately, if left untreated, death


How to Protect Your Workers from Heat Stress

If you know your employees will be exposed to extreme heat – whether they are regularly exposed to hot conditions or a heatwave hits – you must conduct a risk assessment which should take into consideration:

  • How fast your employees are expected to work – Working faster puts people at a higher risk of heat stress
  • What the climate is like in the employee’s work area – It’s not only the ambient temperature that puts workers at risk. You must also consider the humidity, air movement and the effects of working near a heat source
  •  What clothing people are required to wear – If your employees are expected to wear PPE such as heavy fire safety jackets and respiratory protective equipment, their ability to regulate their body temperature and keep cool will be restricted putting them at a higher risk of heat stress
  • The needs of individual workers – Some people are more at risk of developing heat stress, as previously mentioned. A risk assessment should take into consideration these vulnerable groups – those older than 65, of a large build or with medial factors

When assessing the level of risk, talk to your employees to find out what their work conditions are like and to determine if any of them are experiencing symptoms of heat stress.

Once you have identified the risks, the next step is to implement procedures to reduce these risks. Effective risk mitigation will look different in every workplace but there are several fundamental actions to consider:

  • Reduce the air temperature where possible – for example by providing air conditioning or switching off heat-producing machinery that is non-essential
  • Reduce the expected work rate – either by changing procedures and performance targets or by providing equipment that alleviates the effort required from employees
  • Provide drinking water and encourage regular breaks – dehydration due to excessive heat leads to many health complications. Provide water coolers and drinking stations and encourage workers to take more frequent breaks in which they can rehydrate and take time away from the heat
  • Provide suitable PPE – ensure that workers who must wear PPE are provided with items that incorporate cooling technologies and breathable fabrics.
  • Protect vulnerable workers – identify employees who fall within the higher risk group and ensure that provisions are adequate to keep them safe. This may mean changing their work area, providing more frequent breaks or reducing the length of their shifts
  • Provide health and safety training – make sure your workers understand the risks of heat stress and know how to spot the signs. Face-to-face or online training is essential to mitigate the risk
  • Allow people time to adapt – new workers or those who are suddenly exposed to hot conditions, should be given time to acclimatise to their new environment.
  • Monitor employees’ health – if your workers are exposed to hot conditions, either short or long-term, monitor their health and act quickly if signs of heat stress are identified. Pay special attention to high-risk individuals.

Construction mason worker on scaffolding, resting and drinking water

Heat stress can lead to serious health issues and workplace injuries. Make sure your employees are protected by keeping an up-to-date risk assessment, monitoring conditions and employees’ health and implementing procedures to mitigate the risk.

Contact Howlett Health and Safety Services today for help with your risk assessment. We can also offer online and face-to-face health and safety training for you and your team. Book your free 15-minute consultation now.

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