The UK may be known for its more inclement weather, but when the sun does decide to come out and temperatures soar, the risks to those who are regularly exposed to it during their working week can increase dramatically.
These risks can have short and long-term effects on your workforce and should always be factored into your occupational health & safety policies. However, recent research suggests that more could be done to protect workers exposed to sun and heat.
So, what are the risks and what can you do to mitigate or prevent them?
Sunburn and skin cancer
According to the NHS, there are around 147,000 new cases of non-melanoma skin cancer in the UK every year. It is one of the most common cancers in the world and a major cause is damage from UV light, which can be more intensive during the summer months, even in the UK. Those most at risk have fair skin, fair or red hair with light-coloured eyes, or freckled skin or lots of moles.
Outdoor workers are particularly vulnerable to overexposure of UV light during work. A campaign by IOSH revealed that an average of five people a day in the UK are diagnosed with some form of skin cancer contracted from work. An estimated one person a week dies from this, with the hardest hit industry being construction.
This highlights the risks of working outdoors in the UK and shows that UV light is strong enough in this country to do harm, even on cloudy days.
However, research among UK outdoor workers and health & safety professionals suggests that the risks of UV exposure in this country are often overlooked or unknown.
A study by the University of Nottingham found that 23% of construction workers, who worked outside for an average of seven hours a day, thought that they weren’t at risk from UV radiation or were unsure if they were. Another survey by SC Johnson Professional in 2020 revealed that this knowledge gap was shared by health & safety professionals, with 76% of those questioned revealing that they were unaware of the danger of unprotected UV exposure.
As a result, research has revealed that few outdoor workers wear suncream or take other protective measures. In a 2019 survey by SC Johnson Professional, only one in four outdoor workers questioned had worn suncream during the summer of 2018, one of the hottest on record.
This suggests that companies need to raise awareness of the risk among their workforces and, if possible, provide sun protection.
Here are some other measures your organisation could adopt:
- Encourage your workforce to cover up by wearing light, long-sleeved clothes and a hat with a brim (unless a hard hat must be worn).
- Create shady break areas or see if part of the site can be covered to provide protection.
- Educate your workforce on who is most at risk and what the signs of skin cancer are.
- Encourage your workforce to regularly apply suncream with an SPF factor of at least 15 with both UVA and UVB protection.
- If possible, reschedule work to cooler times of the day when UV light is less strong (UV light is at its strongest from 10am to 4pm).
Heat exhaustion and heat stroke
While overexposure to sun is a greater risk for certain skin types, people of all skin colours can be strongly affected by temperature and humidity.
Under the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, employers must ensure that their staff are working in ‘reasonable’ temperatures. ‘Reasonable’ is not defined, but extreme heat can make your workforce unwell. In extreme cases, it can be fatal.
Becoming too hot can make a worker drowsy and could result in poor decision-making. This could lead to an increase in trips, slips or falls.
If exposed to excessive heat over a long time, a worker can begin to suffer with heat exhaustion, which can lead to dizziness, confusion, a high temperature and fast breathing. If the worker is not cooled down, this can lead to more serious problems, such as heat stroke.
Heat stroke is extremely dangerous and must be treated as a medical emergency. You can find the symptoms of heat stroke on the NHS website.
To keep your workforce cool during hot weather and protect them from heat-related illness, you can:
- Carry out a risk assessment that evaluates temperature, humidity, heat from direct sunlight, air movement, workload, clothing, duration of the work, age or vulnerability and equipment that generates extra heat.
- Provide plenty of non-caffeinated drinks.
- Encourage breaks in the shade.
- Implement more regular breaks on hot days.
- Train staff on the signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
- Consider creating shade in working areas or rearranging heavy work to cooler parts of the day.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is likely that your workforce will also be wearing more PPE, such as face masks. This could lead to an increased risk of heat stress and should be factored into your risk assessment.
Keeping your site safe
Adapting your risk assessments and occupational health & safety policies for summer is key to keeping your workforce safe.
To mitigate or prevent risk on site, a robust framework of processes and procedures can help to ensure your staff stay safe and show clients that you take safety seriously.
ISO 45001 demonstrates that your organisation operates a best-practice occupational health & safety management system and can give you benefits including:
- Compliance with the latest legislation and regulations
- Increased health & safety awareness among your workforce
- Enhanced reputation
- Better management of health & safety risks
If you want to find out more about how ISO 45001 can help your company to improve its health & safety credentials and keep your staff safe during summer, get in touch with us at 0333 344 3646 or [email protected].