Under normal circumstances, the human body has the ability to regulate its own temperature. However, working at extremes of heat or cold can make it difficult for the body to keep its temperature constant at around 37°C (depending on where the measurement is taken), which can lead to cold or heat-related medical conditions. Other factors also come into play such as the level of humidity, the level of physical activity, the clothing worn by workers, as well as personal factors such as a person’s age, weight, level of fitness, state of health, medications, etc.
Excessive exposure to heat (heat stress) can lead to heat exhaustion and fainting, which can impede a person’s ability to work. A more serious heat-related condition is heat stroke, which can be fatal. Those at particular risk include kitchen/factory staff, or those who work outdoors in hot conditions (particularly those whose jobs involve physical exertion).
Many people work in cold environments such as those who work in food handling (e.g. cold storage facilities) or those who do outdoor work during cold weather. Excessive exposure to the cold can lead to cold stress, which can cause frostbite. The most serious medical condition caused by the cold is hypothermia, which occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce it, and can cause death if not brought under control.
People suffering from hypothermia or heat stroke often aren’t aware that there is anything wrong, so it is often up to co-workers to spot the signs and ensure that something is done to control the person’s body temperature. Some warning signs to look out for include:
- Hypothermia: nausea, fatigue, dizziness, irritability, euphoria or shivering.
- Heat stroke: sudden and severe fatigue, nausea, dizziness, light-headedness.
Working in cold or hot temperatures may lead to an increase in accidents, illness, job stress, job dissatisfaction, and a decrease in productivity. Employers/managers have a duty of care towards workers and are bound by various pieces of legislation to provide a ‘reasonable’ temperature in the workplace (Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992) and make a suitable assessment of the risks to the health and safety of their workers and take action where necessary and reasonably practicable (Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999).
Looking for advice about work health issues? Take a look at the Fit for Work website, or call our free advice line on 0800 032 6235.