With temperatures climbing above 30 degrees again later this week, do construction companies have an obligation to stop work when temperatures become too hot? Amanda Stubbs and Tola Balogun explain how contractors should protect their workers during heatwaves.

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (HSWA) requires employers to provide their employees with a safe and healthy working environment, which, in particularly hot and dry weather conditions, will require them to assess and control risks arising from working in hot temperatures, possibly with increased exposure to the sun.

While there is no set maximum temperature for working outdoors in the UK, the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 require employers to provide a “reasonable” temperature in the workplace.

This may be easier said than done when ambient temperatures are regularly exceeding 24 degrees centigrade in various parts of the UK, but the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to make a “suitable assessment” of the risks to the health and safety of their employees arising out of their work activity, and to take action “where necessary and where reasonably practicable”.  The temperature of the workplace is one of the noted potential hazards.

Construction companies therefore need to undertake an adequate risk assessment to ensure that employees working in hot temperatures or exposed to the sun do not suffer from dehydration, heatstroke, sun burn, heat rash or similar conditions.

At high temperatures, defined as 24 degrees centigrade and above according to the Trades Union Congress, employees may become drowsy and less aware of dangers. There is also an increased risk of accidents due to slips, trips, falls, poor manual handling, and injury from hand tools. Thermal discomfort gives rise to reduced efficiency that can lead to poor decision-making with resultant errors.  It is also generally recognised that too much sunlight is harmful to the skin and may cause skin cancer, although covering up and/or wearing appropriate Personal Protective Equipment may increase thermal discomfort.

So what can you do?

For employees working in hot conditions, the Health & Safety Executive recommends that employers should:

  • include sun protection advice in routine health and safety training;
  • encourage workers to keep covered up with long-sleeved shirt and a hat with a brim or flap that protects the ears and neck;
  • encourage workers to use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 on any exposed skin;
  • site water points and rest areas in the shade to encourage hydration;
  • schedule work to minimise exposure to heat and sun, so far as reasonably practicable; and
  • encourage workers to check regularly for any unusual skin spots, moles or discolouration that may require medical attention.

While an employer’s failure to provide a safe and healthy working environment will be a breach of the HSWA leading to possible prosecution with a risk of criminal fines or even imprisonment, the HSWA also imposes a duty of care on employees to take reasonable care of themselves, which means heeding advice given to them about keeping cool and hydrated, and being aware of the performance and health risks arising out of thermal discomfort.