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Working outdoors in the heat? Know your rights

Published date
26 Jun 2018
Many employers are shirking their responsibilities when it comes to protecting outdoor workers in hot weather

When the thermometer starts to rise, there’s usually a lot of guidance in the papers and websites about how to keep cool at work.

This is often aimed at people who work in offices, factories, schools and other buildings, but what about those who work outdoors?

Employers tend to say that there is nothing that they can do for outdoor workers as you can’t control temperatures outside in the same way as you can indoors. After all, fans and air conditioning don’t work on the street or in a field.

Yet every summer millions of outdoor workers face the risk of skin cancer, dehydration and heat stress as well as the increased risk of an accident happening because of the tiredness and lack of concentration that working in the heat can bring.

In fact, there is a lot that you can do to protect outdoor workers – it’s just not happening

Very few employers even include heat/sun exposure in their risk assessment, despite the HSE saying that 4,500 skin cancers a year are a result of outside working.

Instead, employers just tell their workers to wear sunscreen or cover up.

Employers should not be putting responsibility on to their workers to take measures; they should be doing proper risk assessments that include the danger of getting skin cancer, dehydration, heat stress and sunstroke.

And if there is any risk, they must take action.

So what can employers do?

While you cannot change when the sun is going to shine, you can change when workers are exposed.

For outside workers in sectors like construction and agriculture you can vary working practices so that less outside work needs to be done either in the hottest months or the hottest time of the day (11:00-15:00).

Often it is possible to organise work in summer so that the tasks that require the employees to be outside can be done either in the mornings or late afternoon, or on cloudy days.

Employers can also provide canopies, sheeting, or similar covering over open areas such as building sites where people are working and ensure there are shaded areas for breaks.

If work does have to be done outside in the sun, then workers should be provided with sunscreen and cool water.

The employer should also issue lightweight long-sleeved protective clothing that allows heat to escape as well as lightweight brimmed hats if safety helmets are not needed.

Far too many employers say that workers should provide these themselves, yet the provision of fresh water and free protective equipment, including sunscreen, is a legal right not an add-on

And of course, it's not just workers in construction and agriculture who are at risk

Millions of other workers spend most of their time outdoors, including postal workers, parking control officers and street cleaners.

They also need more than just a relaxed dress code in the summer, so if you're a safety representative with any members working outside in the heat we have just now, check out the TUC guide to working in heat.