Working During A Heat Wave - Occupational Guidance

The UK summer weather may provide special opportunities for home and leisure activities, but heat wave conditions can make working environments uncomfortable. Although temperatures are not necessarily high in comparison to those routinely experienced in other parts of the world, part of the problem is that the body and its organ systems have inadequate time to acclimatise to the heat. There is no legal maximum temperature above which employees should not have to work, but there should be a flexibility by departments in approach to work, particularly where it is strenuous during periods of high temperature. For most, this workplace discomfort is of nuisance value and will not result in heat exhaustion.

For those working indoors, departments may consider a selection of simple steps in the workplace to provide some relief and minimise the risk of heat exhaustion. For example:

  • Opening windows
  • Shading windows from direct sunlight (e.g. blinds, curtains or reflective film)
  • Moving workstations away from direct sunlight and objects that radiate heat
  • Ensuring an adequate supply of desk and pedestal fans
  • Installing ceiling fans
  • Installing air conditioning and regularly maintaining it
  • Renting mobile air conditioning or air cooling units
  • Ensuring that a plentiful supply of drinking water or other drinks is available
  • Encouraging individuals to drink plenty of water
  • Avoiding caffeine or very sweet drinks
  • Temporarily relaxing any formal dress code for all staff (both male and female) – for example, by permitting smart, casual or light, loose fitting clothes to be worn rather than suits and ties.  Note: personal protective equipment should still be provided and used if required
  • Permitting more rest breaks during the working day to get drinks or to cool down
  • Introducing a flexitime system, so that individuals can come in earlier or work later to avoid the rush hour commute in sweltering temperatures; or
  • Limiting the amount of physical work during hot spells.

For outdoor staff, direct exposure to the sunlight is an additional consideration (e.g. an increased risk of sun cancer).  Staff can avoid unnecessary exposure by:

  • Modifying work routines so that high exposure, or heavy physical work, is undertaken outside of the intense sunlight hours of the day
  • Wearing long sleeves and trousers and/or loose clothing with a close weave
  • Wearing hats with a wide brim or flap that protects the ears and neck
  • Taking breaks in the shade
  • Using creams with a high protection factor (SPF 15 or above) on exposed skin.

The symptoms of the onset of heat exhaustion, such as headache, loss of concentration, giddiness and nausea may be subtle, with later symptoms and signs possibly, but not necessarily, including a heavy thirst, vomiting, muscle cramps and spasms, pale skin, weak pulse and a high temperature. The early identification and management of heat exhaustion (removal from the hot environment and instituting procedures for medical emergencies) are important if heat stroke, which can have disabling or fatal consequences, is to be avoided.

It should be noted that some people, particularly those with certain medical conditions, or who are pregnant, are more vulnerable to heat exhaustion. If there are any health concerns about vulnerability or how to manage it, individuals should contact their general practitioner and/or liaise with the Occupational Health Service. Others are more at risk because of their occupation. For example, those who undertake heavy manual work, who work in areas that are intrinsically hot or who are required to wear protective clothing. Where there is concern for occupational risk, a risk assessment should be undertaken by the individual’s department and appropriate measures put in place. Further information on heat stress in the workplace and risk assessment is available on the HSE website.

Reviewed on: 18th April 2016