Mid-July’s high temperatures have prompted an unprecedented Red Warning for extreme heat, leading to widespread impacts on people and the nation’s infrastructure. Many of us might like a tan in the summer, but the weather this week is in another league, and proper care should be taken to protect yourself from the short and long-term risks.

This is especially so for those, like small, local building firms, who are more likely than others to be working outside. 241 cases of melanoma each year affect those working outside in the British sunshine, according to Imperial College London. And very sadly, 48-60 people in the UK die each year from skin cancer caused from working outside in the sun.

Changes to how you work

The Met Office advises that substantial changes in working practises and daily routines will be required over these few days when temperatures are predicted to peak at around 40 degrees. Even when the sun is hiding behind the clouds or doesn’t feel particularly strong, those working outside increase they risks of skin damage, dehydration and heat exhaustion.

Advice from the UK Health Security Agency is to keep out of the sun between 11:00 and 15:00, on the days of highest heat, and to avoid physical exertion in the hottest parts of the day. We know that as builders, this might be difficult, but the safety of yourself and your workers must come first. If you are travelling over the next few days, be prepared for difficulties on the roads, and cancellations to trains. Always carry water with you.

The UK is not often associated with excessive heat and sun, but the risks of skin damage, dehydration and heatstroke are real, and not just for the most vulnerable, according to advice from the Met Office. Even in the UK, the sun can cause irreversible damage and, potentially, death.

According to the No Time To Lose campaign from the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), cases of skin cancer are increasing in the UK and doing so faster than the rest of Europe. Being sunburnt once every two years can triple your risk of melanoma. We know that 90% of skin cancer deaths can be prevented if people limit their exposure to UK rays.

Protect yourself

Make sure you have a sun safety policy in place to protect yourself and your workers. Keeping hydrated in key, as is wearing high SPF sunscreen at any point when you might need to be outside, and long-sleeved shirts or trousers rather than shorts if you can.

  • Try to protect your neck by using fabric under your hard hat;
  • Wear sunglasses or safety googles with 100% UV protection or filtering;
  • Erect a shady area, ideally for workers to work under but at the very least for them to take cover during their breaks;
  • Try to do the outside work before 10:00 and after 15:00;
  • Swap jobs regularly among team members to reduce time spent outside; and
  • Regularly check your skin for changes to moles.

Be heatstroke aware

Heat exhaustion is not serious if you can cool down within half an hour. But it can lead to heatstroke, which could end up with you in the hospital.

Signs you could have heat exhaustion (NHS):

  • You have a headache;
  • You’re dizzy and confused;
  • You’ve lost your appetite;
  • You feel nauseous;
  • You’re sweating a lot and your skin has turned pale;
  • You’re cramping in the arms, legs and stomach;
  • You are breathing fast;
  • You’re very thirsty; and
  • You have a temperature of 38C or above.

To help those with heat exhaustion, move them to a cool place where they can lie down with their feet raised. Ensure they drink water or a rehydration drink. Where possible, apply cold water or cool air to their skin.

You may need to call for medical help if the person:

  • Doesn’t feel better after 30 minutes of resting and drinking water;
  • Is hot but not sweating;
  • Has a high temperature of 40C or above;
  • Is struggling to breathe; and
  • Is confused, unresponsive or unconscious.

Deal with dehydration

As we all know, you need to drink water to replenish lost fluids, and this is particularly important when performing hard labour out in the summer sunshine.

Signs you could be dehydrated (NHS):

  • You’re feeling thirsty, dizzy or lightheaded;
  • Your urine is dark and smelly and you pee infrequently (fewer then four times a day); and
  • Your mouth, lips and eyes are dry.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Master Builder Magazine June-July 2021.

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