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Home Features Health and safety The heat is on and the spotlight is on construction

The Met office issues an Amber weather warning and tells Britons to “stay out of the sun”. Kelly Davidson and Chris Hoile from lawyers, Womble Bond Dickinson, consider some of the dangers, such as skin cancer,  facing workers and employers as the heatwave continues.

As temperatures reach near record highs of 33.3C, and are predicted to rise further, it is important that the risks to the health of construction workers associated with hot weather are assessed and controlled by employers and those managing construction projects.

Outdoor workers are at a significantly higher risk of skin damage, including developing skin cancer in the longer term, than indoor workers.  The failure to properly appreciate and manage the risks from working outside during hot weather is graphically illustrated by the fact that construction workers account for 44% of the estimated 48 ‘vocational’ skin cancer caused deaths per year in the UK, according to the British Journal of Cancer [2017].

Occupational disease still accounts for far more lost work days than injuries arising from work-related accidents in England & Wales.  It is therefore not surprising there is an increasing focus by the Health and Safety Executive on the health and wellbeing of workers.

The Law

Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HSWA) imposes a non-delegable duty on employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of its employees.  A similar duty is owed by employers under Section 3(1) HSWA in respect of non-employees, such as contractors.

Many of the measures that could be taken by employers to minimise the risk of skin damage may be perceived as unnecessary or difficult to implement and manage.  However, the law requires duty holders to take reasonable steps to assess and control foreseeable risks arising from work activities and the working environment. A failure to do so will give rise to a breach of that duty, with proof of actual harm to workers not being required for a criminal offence to be made out.

A considerable amount of HSE and construction industry guidance is freely available, including HSE publication INDG147entitled “Keep Your Top On“, to assist duty holders in controlling the risks associated with working in hot weather.

What can employers do? 

Practical ways in which the risk of skin damage can be minimised include;

  • where possible, rescheduling work to cooler times of the day
  • providing more frequent rest breaks and introduce shading to rest areas
  • providing free access to cool drinking water
  • introducing shading in areas where individuals are working
  • encouraging the removal of personal protective equipment when resting to help encourage heat loss, and
  • educating workers about recognising the early symptoms of heat stress

Forward thinking   

Employers should take their duty to minimise the risks to the health and wellbeing of workers, including the risks posed to those working outside, as seriously as the duty to minimise the risks from work activities such as working at height and the operation and use of plant and equipment.

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