Working safely in the heat

Photo by Daniel Petzold Photography via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by Daniel Petzold Photography via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

As the UK experiences one of the most continually warm and sunny summers on record, many people are turning their attention to the challenges and potential perils of working in heat.

There are a number of potential dangers associated with working in the heat, including:

  • Accidents in the heat.
  • Heat stroke (when the body’s regulatory system fails and body temperature rises too high – this can cause brain damage or death).
  • Heat exhaustion (extreme fatigue caused by a drop in blood pressure due to the loss of fluids and salts in the body).
  • Heat cramps (muscle spasms that result from the loss of large amount of salt and water in the heat).

Interestingly, regulating body temperature in hot conditions not only depends on controllable factors (e.g. wearing appropriate clothing, remaining hydrated, etc.). Success (or otherwise) is also determined to a large degree by the body being acclimatised to the heat. Clearly, living in the UK means that we aren’t generally well versed in the art of working in extreme heat. When a person isn’t used to hot temperatures, the body’s first reaction is often to raise the body’s internal temperature (i.e. to create a fever), which can be dangerous because it increases the pulse rate and puts strain on the heart. The body will then work to bring down the temperature by sweating to cool the body.

Whether or not a person sweats efficiently is dictated by a number of factors such as the level of humidity in the air and whether or not a person’s clothing allows for evaporation. It is also determined by the extent to which the body is used to hot conditions – bodies that aren’t acclimatised to the heat often produce sweat that can be high in salt, which depletes the body of electrolytes.

The other way the body sheds excess heat is by altering the blood circulation. The heart begins to pump more blood into the small blood vessels near the skin’s surface, where the heat of the blood is transferred to the cooler outside environment. If the outside environment is not cooler than body temperature, however, this method is ineffective, and this change in circulation can put extra stress on the heart.

So, whilst this year’s glorious British summer is being lauded by many, it’s clear that it’s not altogether easy for the body to cope with the heat. This is why employers/managers need to ensure that the appropriate precautions are taken to protect those who are working in the heat. For more information on working in high temperatures, or on other work health topics, see the guides on the Health for Work Adviceline knowledge base (e.g. our guide to working in high temperatures) or search our blog.

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Uncontrolled stress in the workplace – taming the beast

file0002062790027Stress. We all experience it at some point. Some more than others, and some more acutely than others. For some people, a certain amount of stress is important in order for them to remain focused and determined to achieve. For others, even small amounts of stress can have a negative impact on their productivity – stress can lead to panic and unstructured working. Mistakes are made so simple tasks take longer to complete. And then, for some, prolonged stress can ultimately cause illness, which often puts an end to anything being achieved at all.

Whilst individuals have a major role to play in ensuring that they don’t overdo it and let stress get the better of them, it’s not always possible for people to step back sufficiently from stressful situations in order to take stock, become aware of their escalating stress levels, and make the necessary changes. By definition, people who are stressed at work are those who feel they are struggling to manage, for whatever reason. Perhaps they have important work deadlines to meet, or they want to impress a new boss, or fear for their job security so don’t want to admit defeat. These people are the least likely to step back from their work voluntarily, appraise the situation, and take the necessary action (i.e. slowing down and admitting that they can’t manage everything).

Lady with head in her handsSo, it’s down to managers and employers to step in, where necessary. How, you may ask, are managers and employers supposed to support employees to help them keep on top of their own health and wellbeing, whilst they’re busy grappling with important managerial issues such as productivity, profitability and remaining competitive? But the fact is that if staff are feeling stressed and pressured, they probably aren’t working to the best of their ability, so it’s of no benefit to organisations for staff to be pushed to their limits, and beyond. Customer service and productivity may well drop, and mistakes and discontent may increase – and this certainly isn’t what organisations should be aspiring to.

For more information on managing the ever-increasing problem of stress in the workplace in order to keep your workplace running smoothly and efficiently, see the guides on the Health for Work Adviceline knowledge base or search our blog.

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Preventing cancer caused by work environments

Photo by Erik Söderström via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by Erik Söderström via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

The European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) has published a new guide on preventing work cancers, a topic that the ETUI feels has not received sufficient attention from EU policies over the past decade. The guide, Preventing work cancers – a workplace health priority, looks at the history and causes of work-induced cancers and provides tools for collective prevention.

According to the ETUI report:

“Cancer kills around 1.2 million people each year in the European Union. Between 65 000 and 100 000 of these deaths are believed to be directly caused by working conditions. Others are the result of environmental exposures which, in many cases, are themselves related to firms’ business activities.”

Startlingly, work-related cancer is by far the main cause of death by working conditions in Europe, and these deaths are predominantly down to controllable factors such as organisations’ technical choices about substances and processes. Working with asbestos, certain chemicals and carcinogens can put people at high risk of contracting work-related cancers, unless the working environment is well-controlled. And, in many cases, it’s not easy to prove categorically that cancer has been caused by work.

So what can employers do to ensure that risks to health are minimised as much as possible? Could dangerous materials be substituted for others, could personal protective equipment (PPE) be provided for workers, or could health surveillance be carried out to monitor the health of those who are potentially at risk in the workplace (if the need is identified from a risk assessment)? Ideally, employers would keep a register of projects involving the handling of carcinogens and the levels to which staff are exposed.

For more information on protecting the health of people in the workplace, see the guides on the Health for Work Adviceline knowledge base or search our blog.

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Men’s health at work

Photo by Antonie Robiez via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by Antonie Robiez via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

This week’s National Men’s Health Week, led by the Men’s Health Forum, focuses on men’s health at work. People who work spend a significant proportion of their lives in the workplace, and men are twice as likely to work full-time as women, so generally spend even longer in the workplace than their female counterparts. Therefore it is vital that men’s health is protected at work as it is often here that the first signs of mental or physical distress become apparent.

Not only do men generally spend longer in the workplace than women, but, on the whole, they wait longer before going to see a doctor with a health condition, so it’s easy to see how mental and physical health conditions are at risk of going unchecked.

Understandably, many managers feel uncomfortable broaching the subject of a person’s health with them for fear of causing offence, and mental health issues can be particularly difficult to talk about. However, employers do have a duty of care towards employees, which means that they need to do all that is reasonably practicable to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of their staff. Fostering an open environment in the workplace, in which people feel confident about voicing their health concerns, and promoting the health of staff through wellness programmes, is a good place to start.

If you’re looking for information about health and work, why not take a look at the resources on the Health for Work Adviceline website, blog or knowledge base to find out more about keeping your organisation healthy and productive?

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Electronic cigarettes – should they be covered by the smoking ban?

Photo by Monica Grigsby via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by Monica Grigsby via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Electronic cigarettes (or e-cigarettes) are gaining in popularity. According to ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) an estimated 2.1 million adults in Great Britain currently use them. There has been a substantial rise in the number of current smokers who have tried electronic cigarettes since 2010. In 2010, only 8.2% of current smokers had ever tried them, but this figure had risen to 51.7% by 2014.

E-cigarettes are essentially battery-powered devices that replicate smoking behaviour (without the use of tobacco) with a combination of nicotine, flavour and other chemicals. Many claim that they are very useful when giving up smoking because they allow users to feel as though they are smoking, and to gradually reduce the amount of nicotine they inhale over time.

However, there has been some controversy surrounding them, mainly because they haven’t been rigorously tested for safety and effectiveness. In 2008 the Assistant Director-General of the World Health Organization’s Diseases and Mental Health Cluster, Dr Ala Alwan, made clear the World Health Organization’s stance on e-cigarettes:

“The electronic cigarette is not a proven nicotine replacement therapy…..WHO has no scientific evidence to confirm the product’s safety and efficacy.”

Whilst smokers are obliged to smoke outdoors since the smoking ban in enclosed workplaces came into force in July 2007, many smokers of e-cigarettes do not consider themselves to be obliged to adhere to these rules because e-cigarettes do not contain tobacco. However, critics of the e-cigarette argue that smoking e-cigarettes in public places risks normalising smoking behaviour, and may in fact cause negative health effects (e.g. putting pregnant women at risk) because they haven’t been sufficiently tested.

So, the question of whether employers should allow staff to smoke e-cigarettes within the workplace is a tricky one to answer. Certainly discouraging smoking in the general sense is in the interests of staff, employers and organisations, if staff are to remain healthy and productive. And looking after the health of workers is precisely what the resources on the Health for Work Adviceline’s website, blog or knowledge base to do – take a look to find out more.

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Ensuring equality in the workplace for those who are deaf or have some form of hearing loss

Photo by Clare Griffiths via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by Clare Griffiths via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

According to figures from Action on Hearing Loss (formerly the Royal National Institute for the Deaf), one in six people in the UK suffer from some form of hearing loss of which approximately one third are below retirement age – and these figures are growing year on year.

Many people who are deaf or have hearing loss will be considered disabled under the Equality Act 2010, and would be protected from discrimination under this legislation. Employers need to ensure that they do not treat a person with hearing loss any less favourably than any other employee, which may involve making reasonable adjustments. It is also advisable for employers to ensure that team members have been given some form of deaf awareness training to overcome potential communication barriers.

An interesting article on the Action on Hearing Loss’s website, which reports the results of research carried out to mark this year’s Deaf Awareness Week (19-25 May), states that three out of four people with hearing loss feel their employment opportunities are more limited than their hearing peers, with almost 80% naming employers as the major barrier. Clearly, this is a troubling statistic, and suggests that much more needs to be done to protect the rights of people with hearing loss in the workplace.

There are many useful resources available on the broad subject of hearing loss and, more specifically, protecting the rights of individuals with hearing loss in the workplace. Some of these include Action on Hearing Loss, the British Deaf Association and the Royal Association for Deaf People. Or for information on a whole range of work health-related topics, see the Health for Work Adviceline website, blog or knowledge base.

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Protecting sufferers of ME and other long-term conditions against discrimination

Photo by Graham Binns via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by Graham Binns via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

It was ME Awareness Day on 12 May. ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis) is a condition that is shrouded in lack of understanding to a great degree. To begin with, there is some dispute as to the correct name to give the condition. Some people use the term ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’ (CFS) because the main symptom for many is often fatigue and the condition is chronic. However, many sufferers prefer the name ME because the term ‘fatigue’ is generic and does reflect the different and severe nature of their fatigue. In addition, fatigue is not always the main symptom (others include muscle pain, problems with short-term memory and concentration, sleep disturbances, emotional imbalances). To further complicate matters, the causes of the condition are unknown (possibly a viral infection that triggers it), and there are no tests to definitively diagnose the illness.

One thing that is clear, however, is that the condition can be extremely debilitating. The symptoms can range from relatively mild, to extremely severe. Somebody with mild symptoms may need the odd day off to rest when the fatigue is bad. Those with severe symptoms, however, have reduced mobility and can sometimes only carry out the very simplest of everyday tasks. Unfortunately for sufferers, despite having been recognised as a neurological condition by the World Health Organization since 1969, it’s believed by many to be a ‘made up’ condition, partly because the condition fluctuates, and partly because the symptoms can vary so greatly and can’t be categorised as clear-cut ME symptoms.

Because ME is a long-term and fluctuating condition, sufferers are likely to be protected from discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 if the ME has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. If they meet the requirements of the Act, employers need to ensure that they do not treat them any less favourably than any other employee. Information about organisations’ responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010, as well as on a vast array of other work health-related topics, can be found on the Health for Work Adviceline website, blog or knowledge base.

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The flexible working rules are changing

Photo by Martin Nikolaj Christensen via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by Martin Nikolaj Christensen via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

This week, which saw Flexible Working Awareness Day, seems like a good time to be writing something about the potential benefits of flexible working.  Flexible working covers everything from flexibility in terms of the work location (e.g. home working) as well as flexible contracts such as temporary contracts, part-time work, job sharing, etc. When managed correctly by organisations and staff, flexible working can offer a whole host of benefits.

Advantages of flexible working to staff include:

  • the possibility to create a better work/life balance;
  • reduced childcare costs;
  • reduced travel costs (i.e. those with a long commute who can work from home at times);
  • reduced stress (e.g. by travelling to work outside peak times).

Advantages of flexible working to organisations include:

  • reduced absenteeism;
  • an improved ability to hold onto key staff;
  • an increase in commitment and productivity.

Currently, employers are obliged to consider requests for flexible working arrangements from employees who:

  • have 26 weeks’ continuous employment on the date at which the application is made;
  • have children under the age of 16 (or 18, if their child is disabled);
  • carry out certain carer responsibilities.

However, the flexible working arrangements will be amended on 30 June 2014 to give the right to flexible working to all employees after 26 weeks of service, whether or not they have children or are caring for a relative. Employers will have a duty to consider all requests in a reasonable manner. However, employers will have the flexibility to refuse requests on business grounds.

Working more flexibly makes it possible for people to remain in work, even when other aspects of their lives (health conditions, family commitments, etc.) would make it difficult for them to be in the workplace during regular working hours. For more information on flexible working, and the process that must be followed by organisations and employees, see the Gov.UK website. Or for information about health issues in the workplace, see the Health for Work Adviceline’s website, blog or knowledge base.

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Risk assessments during pregnancy or when breastfeeding

Photo by Tatiana Vdb via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by Tatiana Vdb via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Many women choose to continue working while pregnant or return to work whilst still breastfeeding, and there is no reason why being pregnant or having young children should stop women from continuing their employment. In order to facilitate this, employers are obliged to take action to ensure that these women are not exposed to any significant risk whilst at work.

The Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations 1999 (MHSW) includes regulations that protect the health and safety of new and expectant mothers who work. Every employer has a duty to make a suitable and sufficient general written assessment of the health and safety risks its employees are exposed to whilst at work, including those who, in future, could become expectant mothers. This means that any significant risks to unborn children and expectant mothers should be identified, even at the early stages.

Pregnancy risk assessment

On receiving written notification of a pregnancy, employers should not delay in undertaking a specific assessment – workplace conditions that may have been acceptable prior to pregnancy may no longer be suitable during pregnancy and whilst breastfeeding. What is covered in this assessment will vary greatly depending on the type of workplace, the kind of work the employee is doing, etc. Employers will then be required to regularly monitor and review any assessment made to take into account possible risks that may occur at different stages of pregnancy. See our guide on new and expectant mothers at work for more information, which includes a sample pregnancy risk assessment.

Removing or reducing risks found

Employers are then obliged to try to remove any risks that have been highlighted by the risk assessment, including possibly reducing hours to reduce stress, agreeing more frequent rest breaks, excluding heavy lifting or long periods of standing up, etc. Employers must give information on the risks found and the protective measures to be taken.

If the risks still remain, employers will need to alter working conditions or hours of work, if it is reasonable to do so and would avoid the risk. If this is not possible, or the risk cannot be avoided, employees should be offered a suitable alternative job. And, if this is not possible, the employee should be suspended on full pay for as long as is necessary to avoid the risks. Employees who have unreasonably refuse alternative work would lose the right to full pay during their suspension.

For information on other work health issues, see the Health for Work Adviceline website, blog or knowledge base.

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National UK Blog Awards – might we win?

Photo by Mikkel Rønne via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by Mikkel Rønne via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

The National UK Blog Awards are the only blog awards recognising a multitude of industry professional talent across the UK. They provide a unique opportunity for individual professionals, and organisations, to be recognised for their social media achievements through blogging, with the chance to network and be inspired by other industry bloggers.

We are really proud to announce that the Health for Work Adviceline blog has been shortlisted as a finalist in the category of organisational health blog. The winner will be announced on Friday 25 April so we will keep you posted.

Why not take a look now to find over 150 blogs on a whole range of work health topics?

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