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Heat stress

This page tells you about the risks of overheating when working in hot conditions and gives practical guidance on how to avoid it. It does not address issues of thermal comfort in the workplace.

In many jobs heat stress is an issue all year round (such as bakeries, compressed air tunnels, foundries and smelting operations), but this information is also applicable during the hot summer months where there may be an increased risk of heat stress for some people.

Heat stress occurs when the body’s means of controlling its internal temperature starts to fail. As well as air temperature, factors such as work rate, humidity and clothing worn while working may lead to heat stress. Therefore it may not be obvious to someone passing through the workplace that there is a risk of heat stress.

You and your employees must be aware of how to work safely in heat, the factors that can lead to heat stress, and how to reduce the risk of it occurring.

How does the body react to heat?

The body reacts to heat by increasing the blood flow to the skin’s surface, and by sweating. This results in cooling as sweat evaporates from the body’s surface and heat is carried to the surface of the body from within by the increased blood flow. Heat can also be lost by radiation and convection from the body’s surface.

Typical example of a heat stress situation

Someone wearing protective clothing and performing heavy work in hot and humid conditions could be at risk of heat stress because:

The symptoms will worsen the longer someone remains working in the same conditions.

What are the effects of heat stress?

Heat stress can affect individuals in different ways, and some people are more susceptible to it than others.

Typical symptoms are:

Where does heat stress occur?

Examples of workplaces where people might suffer from heat stress because of the hot environment created by the process, or restricted spaces are:

In these industries working in the heat may be the norm. For others it will be encountered more irregularly depending on the type of work being done and changes in the working environment, eg seasonal changes in outside air temperature can be a significant contributor to heat stress.

What do I need to do about heat stress?

Over time people adapt to hot conditions by sweating more, and by changing their behaviour to try and cool down, eg removing clothing, taking cool drinks, fanning themselves, sitting in the shade or a cool area, and/or reducing their work rate. However, in many work situations such behavioural changes may not be possible, eg during asbestos removal.

Where there is a possibility of heat stress occurring you will need to carry out a risk assessment. Controlling the risks in the workplace provides advice on how to carry out a risk assessment.  For specific advice on how to record the findings of your heat stress risk assessment and identifying the heat stress risks you need to control use the heat stress checklist.

What do I need to look at in a risk assessment?

When carrying out a risk assessment, the major factors you need to consider are:

Firstly, you should talk to the workers involved (and their safety representatives), to see whether they are suffering early signs of heat stress. If it seems likely that there is a problem, you may need to consult with people who are more experienced in determining the risk from hot environments, eg occupational hygienists, nurses or doctors.

How can I reduce the risks?

Remove or reduce the sources of heat where possible:

Control the temperature

Control the temperature using engineering solutions eg:

Provide mechanical aids

Provide mechanical aids where possible to reduce the work rate. Regulate the length of exposure to hot environments by:

Prevent dehydration

Working in a hot environment causes sweating which helps keep people cool but means losing vital water that must be replaced. Provide cool water in the workplace and encourage workers to drink it frequently in small amounts before, during (this is not possible in some situations eg respiratory protective equipment use or asbestos removal) and after working.

Provide personal protective equipment

Specialised personal protective clothing is available which incorporates, for example, personal cooling systems or breathable fabrics.

This may help protect workers in certain hot environments. Protective clothing or respiratory protective equipment is often provided to protect from a hazard at work eg asbestos. This type of equipment, while protecting the employee from this hazard may expose the employee to heat stress.

Training

Provide training for your workers, especially new and young employees telling them about the risks of heat stress associated with their work, what symptoms to look out for, safe working practices and emergency procedures.

Acclimatisation

Allow workers to acclimatise to their environment and identify which workers are acclimatised/assessed as fit to work in hot conditions.

Identify who is at risk

Identify employees who are more susceptible to heat stress either because of an illness/condition or medication that may encourage the early onset of heat stress, eg those with heart conditions.
Advice may be needed from an occupational health professional or medical practitioner. Your risk assessment should already address risks to pregnant employees, but you may choose to review it when an employee tells you she is pregnant, to help you decide if you need to do any more to control the risks.

Monitor health

Monitor the health of workers at risk. Where it is considered that a residual risk remains after implementing as many control measures as practicable, you may need to monitor the health of workers exposed to the risk. You should then seek advice from occupational health professionals with a good working knowledge of the risks associated with working in heat stress situations.

2015-07-08