Managing the risk of heat stress

Whether high temperatures are the norm in your working environment or circumstances have made it temporarily uncomfortable, it’s essential for you or your employees to be able to work safely in these conditions.

Air temperature, humidity, clothing and levels of exertion can all contribute to heat stress, a condition that impacts the body beyond sweating.

How to body regulates itself in the heat

When the temperature rises, our bodies react by sweating and increasing the blood flow to the surface of our skin.

Heat stress occurs when the body’s self-cooling mechanism is overwhelmed as it gains more heat than it can lose. This can happen if clothing or humidity prevents sweat from evaporating and cooling the body, or someone is over-exerting themselves and not losing the heat to compensate.

The knock on effects of increased sweating and heart rate put further strain on the body.

If left unchecked, the person’s condition will worsen as the body reaches a point when its internal thermostat stops working altogether.

Heat stress symptoms

Heat stress affects people in different ways, but sufferers can experience:

  • Heat rash
  • Extreme thirst
  • Cramps
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fainting
  • Heat exhaustion – fatigue, dizziness, nausea and a headache
  • Heat stroke – dry skin, convulsions and eventually loss of consciousness

Assessing the risks

There are working environments where employees are more likely to suffer from heat stress than others. Foundries, compressed air tunnels, bakeries and launderettes all come with higher risk due to their processes or restricted spaces, and are examples of businesses that would benefit from a risk assessment that addresses heat stress. Other businesses that could be affected are those with employees who work outdoors who could suffer in the high temperatures in the summer. Any risk assessment around heat stress should factor in employees’ work rate, climate and clothing. For example, someone may have to wear respiratory equipment to remove asbestos, and their age and overall health may make them more susceptible.

Turn down the heat

In certain industries like those previously mentioned, a raised temperature is going to be inevitable, and so steps to make things more comfortable are critical. Here are some steps you could take to manage the risk:

Control the temperature – look at putting barriers in place to deflect heat or using fans or air conditioning.

Machinery – if there is equipment which can help employees over-working themselves, these should be considered.

Limit exposure time – you might have policies in place which state that employees only enter a space when temperatures are at a certain level, and stipulate rest breaks in cooler areas.

Facilities – make sure there’s a water cooler in situ as well as reminders to stay hydrated.

Provide training – educate your employees on the signs of heat stress and the things they can do to minimise the risk, such as taking a break when they’re feeling tired or like they need to cool down.

Provide specialist clothing or equipment – a couple of simple measures such as breathable clothing or personal fans could prevent employees from overheating.

Mind those at risk – some employees may have existing health conditions which may make them more susceptible to heat stress, and you will need to seek further advice on whether they’re able to carry out certain processes.

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