The increase in summer temperatures over the last few years has a huge impact on workers who are exposed to heat stress and have to do physical work. In terms of prevention, companies need to take the appropriate measures to protect workers and avoid heat-related illnesses, such as heat rash, cramps, fainting, dehydration, heat exhaustion and sunstroke.
Directive 2004/37/CE of the European Parliament and of the Council of April 29, 2004, on the protection of workers from the risks related to exposure to chemical, physical and biological agents at work establishes that employers must take the necessary measures to ensure that the air temperate in the workplace is below 32ºC.
Royal Decree 4/2023, on occupational risk prevention during high temperatures and heatwaves, in force since May 2023, updates Royal Decree 486/1997, of April 14, 1997 governing environmental conditions when working outdoors.
This regulation establishes that measures should be taken to protect workers outdoors and in areas that cannot be closed off because of the nature of the work, from the risks associated with adverse climate conditions, especially high temperatures.
The measures should be derived from the occupational risk assessment, which will take into account, in addition to the adverse weather conditions, the characteristics of the task being performed and the personal characteristics or known biological condition of the worker.
The royal decree-law expressly states that the preventive measures will include a ban on performing certain tasks during the hours of the day in which adverse weather conditions are present, in those cases where the due protection of the workers cannot be guaranteed in any other way.
Lastly, it establishes that it will be mandatory to adapt working conditions, including by reducing or modifying the scheduled hours of the working day, when the Spanish National Weather Service (or the corresponding regional agency, where applicable) issues an orange or red weather warning and the existing prevention measures do not guarantee the protection of the workers. It is important to underscore that orange and red weather warnings do not automatically imply the suspension of activities, rather these will depend on the prevention measures in place and whether they are sufficient.
It should also be highlighted that it is important to negotiate the prevention measures and that some agreements have already been adopted in this regard, for example in the construction industry.
Due to the exponential increase in sunstroke as a result of high temperatures, the labor inspection authorities have stepped up their on-site inspections in order to make sure that the working conditions in place are in line with occupational risk preventive requirements. For this purpose, the availability of shaded areas, sunscreen or cold water are reviewed, as well as measures to organize working conditions, for example: changes in timetables to avoid the hottest hours of the day, informing workers of what they should do in the event of sunstroke, working in pairs, limiting heat exposure, etc.
It is important for companies to be aware that heat stress is a sizable occupational risk and that they therefore need to take steps and implement policies, especially during orange and red weather warnings to ensure workers’ health and safety and avoid considerable fines by the labor inspection authorities.