Temperature extremes in the workplace – Winter this year has brought some bitterly cold days already. And, according to the national weather bureau, the worst is yet to come. The risk attached to extreme cold or hot conditions also has be accessed to avoid it reducing productivity or even becoming a threat.
Staff working outdoors can be severly be affected by temperature and other weather conditions: but those indoors also need to be protected from extreme temperature conditions. Generally speaking, temperatures in South Africa are above 0, so the law hasn't set a minimum temperature that needs to be maintained in the workplace. But the temperature in workrooms should normally be between 13 and 16 degrees, with 13 degrees being advised when much of the work is of a physical nature. These temperatures are considered as being reasonable.
A risk management approach should be adopted and, in consultation with employees, a look should be taken at the possible hazards associated with working in these temperatures and at what control measures could be implemented to keep the risks as low as reasonably practical.
The first step is to identify sources of heat and cold, by looking at the work environment, plant and equipment used and work processes and practices. The effects of heat and cold on the body are influenced by environmental factors such as:
- Humidity – the moisture content in the air.
- Air temperature – how hot or cold the surrounding air is.
- Air movement – including air speed and air circulation.
- Radiant heat – heat radiating from the sun, or emitted by the plant, buildings, fixtures or processes.
When a normal situation doesn't allow for maintaining these temperatures, companies are advised to take extra precautions for the well-being of the employees. When temperatures are too low or too high, it could become a risk for the employee. Where the temperature in a workroom would otherwise be uncomfortably high, for example because of hot processes or the design of the building, all reasonable steps should be taken to achieve a reasonably comfortable temperature, for example by:
- insulating hot plants or pipes;
- providing an air-cooling system;
- shading windows;
- siting workstations away from areas subject to radiant heat.
Where a reasonably comfortable temperature cannot be achieved throughout a workroom, local cooling should be provided. In extremely hot weather fans and increased ventilation may be used instead of a local cooling system.
Where workers are exposed to temperatures which do not allow for reasonable comfort, despite the provision of local cooling system, suitable protective clothing and rest facilities should be provided. Typical examples of suitable protective clothing would be ice vests, or air/water fed suits. The effectiveness of these PPE systems may be limited if they are used for extended periods of time with inadequate rest breaks. Where practical there should be systems of work (for example, task rotation) to ensure that the length of time that individual workers are exposed to uncomfortable temperatures is limited.
Employees working in extreme temperature conditions are likely to fall ill much quicker, develop muscle problems or cramps, have limited productivity and even stand a chance of dying from heat fatigue. Don't under-estimate the impact of extreme temperatures!
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