Nursing staff must care for their patients in all weather conditions, and recent years have seen record-breaking temperatures across the UK – 40.3°C was recorded in Lincolnshire in 2022.
While there’s no upper legal limit on workplace temperatures, The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 and Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1993 state that the temperature inside buildings should be reasonable during work hours.
RCN Health, Safety and Wellbeing National Officer Louise Church says: “Employers must do all they can to protect staff and patient health and wellbeing as temperatures rise.”
Here are some ways your employer should help keep you safe during hot weather.
1. Provide access to drinking water
It is the duty of your employer to ensure staff have access to drinking water and the time to drink it. The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 and Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1993 require employers to ensure workers have an adequate supply of wholesome drinking water that is readily accessible at suitable places.
Employees should avoid caffeine where possible in severe heat, as caffeine can increase urine production and therefore cause dehydration. Try and drink cool water frequently in small amounts.
Dehydration affects concentration and cognitive function and triggers fatigue – essentially, like missed rest breaks, it is not just a wellbeing at work issue but an issue of patient and staff safety.
2. Allow you to take your breaks
The Working Time Regulations 1998/Working Time Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1998 state that staff who work more than 6 hours a day must have a minimum of a 20-minute uninterrupted break away from their immediate workstation.
Employers need to ensure that staff can take their at-work breaks. A 20-minute break is the legal minimum and for those working long hours in safety critical roles, 2 or more longer breaks may be needed. It is also important that rest areas where staff take their breaks are well-ventilated and cool.
The regulations recognise that in certain occupations, such as health care, it may not always be possible to take breaks all of the time, such as in emergencies. In such cases, staff should be able to have compensatory rest.
3. Relax uniform rules and manage use of PPE
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says in hot weather, employers should consider relaxing formal dress codes, where possible. If you can, remove layers of clothing, depending on how hot you are. As part of decisions around uniforms, employers should consider loose breathable fabrics, too.
If you must wear personal protective equipment (PPE), including respiratory protection, eye protection and aprons, remove the items as soon as it’s not required when working in high temperatures. PPE can reduce the body’s ability to evaporate sweat and can increase the risk of heat exhaustion.
Employers should review the risk assessment for the activity that requires PPE and implement additional measures, such as ensuring PPE is only worn for the task requiring it, discarding single-use PPE when taking breaks, taking breaks more frequently and wearing lighter, loose-fitting uniforms.
4. Control the temperature
The HSE states that employers should already be assessing the risks, talking to workers and agreeing control measures to protect you.
This could include providing fans to cool the air, keeping air conditioning units maintained and moving workstations away from hot machinery or out of direct sunlight. Consider using window blinds to reduce the heating effects of the sun, too.
5. Conduct risk assessments
As heat is a hazard, workplace temperature should be factored into activity and area risk assessments for nursing staff, including those working in the community. In addition, increased temperatures should be considered in individual risk assessments for nursing staff with health conditions which may be exacerbated by heat. Heat should also be considered in pregnancy risk assessments.
There is a legal requirement for employers to assess risks to staff at work and temperature is something that should be considered. Additionally, RCN reps and staff should be consulted as part of the risk assessment process.
Employers should consult with nursing staff and trade union representatives on the proposed measures to manage workplace temperatures.
What if your employer isn’t doing these things?
The first thing you should do if you think your employer if falling foul of the above is to speak to your local RCN rep. You can contact the RCN advice team if you don’t have a workplace rep.
You could also discuss your concerns with your line manager and make suggestions for improving the situation, and speak to your local RCN branch.
What can reps do?
- We strongly encourage reps to ask their employer for information on how workplace temperatures will be adequately controlled during hot weather.
- Reps should ensure that the employer has suitable plans in place, in advance, for heat/raised temperatures in the workplace. Questions can be raised at the Safety Committee.
- Reps can support members with complaints about heat/temperature in the workplace by raising them with the employer.
Signs of heat exhaustion and heatstroke
Heat exhaustion occurs when the body overheats and can’t cool down. If action isn’t taken to cool down, heat exhaustion can lead to heatstroke.
The signs of heat exhaustion include:
- dizziness and confusion
- loss of appetite and feeling sick
- excessive sweating and skin becoming pale and clammy or getting a heat rash, but a change in skin colour can be harder to see on brown and black skin
- cramps in the arms, legs and stomach
- fast breathing or pulse
- a high temperature of 38°C or above
- being very thirsty
- feeling faint.
If someone is showing signs of heat exhaustion, they need to be cooled down and given fluids.
Heatstroke is where the body is no longer able to cool down and body temperature becomes dangerously high.
The signs of heatstroke are:
- lack of co-ordination
- fast heartbeat
- fast breathing or shortness of breath
- hot skin which does not sweat
Heatstroke is a medical emergency and should be treated as such.
The RCN has a range of guidance to support and encourage good practice within the workplace:
- Our Rest, Rehydrate, Refuel resource provides information for staff and managers.
- We also have further information on heat stress and PPE.
- A specific briefing for RCN Representatives on working in the heat and raised summer temperatures is available via the Reps Hub on the RCN website.