On the security front line, the weather should be the least of your workforce’s worries. That said, the risks posed by a sudden hot spell can sometimes be overlooked. With the summer months now already upon us, Tina Chittenden provides a timely reminder of the warning signs while also outlining preventative measures for your contingency planning.
In both the business world and our personal lives, we often make the mistake of focusing on a distant danger, in turn overlooking risks that are somewhat closer to home. I was reminded of this recently by, on the one hand, the media’s often over-heated predictions of hot weather and, on the other, the news reports focusing on the inquests into the deaths of the SAS trainees who collapsed while on an exercise in the Brecon Beacons during the hottest day of 2013’s summer.
On that note, it’s a tragic irony that professionals prepared to risk their lives during conflict in searingly hot environments such as Iraq should perish on home soil during the course of a British summer.
In the security sector, companies don’t usually place their people into extreme environments or require them to complete physically demanding work. Nevertheless, there are risks at play in hot weather that must be managed.
Security company managers have a Duty of Care to their employees. That includes taking account of the risks that may arise in a heatwave – an extreme weather event that, like the harsh cold snaps of recent years, may be more frequent in future years as a consequence of climate change.
It’s your responsibility as a manager to ensure that your company adapts in order to reduce or eliminate risks to your people from dehydration, heat exhaustion or sunburn.
On that basis, it’s prudent to assess the risk and document it. This assessment should cover not only those security officers required to patrol outdoors, but also the clients’ premises where they’re stationed and your own office staff.
In some cases, your risk assessment may call for health surveillance or medical screening. For instance, a pregnant employee stationed in the office may be more susceptible to heatstroke, as will people with certain disabilities.
Periods of extremely hot weather can cause serious health problems for anyone. Normally, the body cools itself by sweating. If the temperature and humidity are extremely high, however, sweating isn’t wholly effective in maintaining the body’s normal temperature. When this happens, our blood chemistry can change and internal organs – including the brain and kidneys – are more susceptible to damage.
A sudden change in weather producing a hot spell can also be stressful since it usually takes several days for the body to adjust to the increased levels of heat.
Heatstroke and heat exhaustion
The most common heat-related conditions are heatstroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, heat rash and sunburn. Heatstroke and exhaustion are the most serious. That being so, managers and First Aid-trained personnel should be aware of the symptoms (more of which anon).
Heatstroke occurs when the body is unable to control its own temperature. This rises rapidly, the sweating mechanism fails and the body is unable to cool down. Heatstroke can result from overexposure to direct sunlight – either with or without physical activity – or very high indoor temperatures.
The symptoms can include a high body temperature, red, hot and dry skin, a rapid pulse, throbbing headache, dizziness, nausea, confusion and loss of consciousness.
Spending too much time in a very warm environment can lead to heat exhaustion, resulting in excessive sweating without the adequate replacement of fluid, salt and minerals.
As is the case with heatstroke, heat exhaustion may occur indoors or outside, with or without exercise. In short, your employees don’t have to be carrying out manual labour to be at risk. How, then, do you adequately protect them?
A complication for security companies is that most of the workforce will be stationed at clients’ premises, a location over which you may have limited control. That doesn’t mean you can abdicate responsibility. As this is a seasonal issue, it isn’t always possible to gauge during normal weather conditions how uncomfortably hot a workstation can be in high summer. As an indicator, ask your employees about their experiences during previous hot spells.
It’s well known that Portacabin-style ‘temporary’ buildings and gate houses can heat up rapidly in hot weather. Might you be able to deploy fans or heat extractors, or will this require modifications, a new power supply and/or your client’s permission? Can temporary shading be erected to screen the gate house from the midday sun?
Another major constraint for security guarding companies is that flexible working isn’t an option. Your team must be on site around the clock or at least during your clients’ operating hours/the hours stipulated with the Service Level Agreement of the contract. While there may be scope to change rosters and rotate staff such that they spend less time in the ‘hot seat’, it’s likely you’ll have to rely on other measures to manage the risks around ‘temperature stress’.
Operatives’ PPE is an obvious one. If your security officers’ uniforms are going to exacerbate their discomfort, procure summer versions if you haven’t already done so. If your officers are required to patrol the perimeter of a property or tour a series of sites they could be exposed to intense sunlight for long periods of time. Do you issue appropriate headgear and/or encourage them to wear sunblock?
Staff must assume a degree of responsibility
Of course, your members of staff should also take responsibility for their own welfare. They ought to be drinking more fluids during hot weather and taking reasonable precautions. Educate or remind them about this point if necessary.
Meanwhile, back at the office, don’t wait for your staff to complain. It’s far better to be seen to anticipate their needs and protect their welfare. Here, it will be easier to amend company procedures and ways of working. This might mean more flexible working hours or the option of working from home.
Office dress codes can be relaxed. Again, make sure your staff are aware about what is and what isn’t acceptable.
Whether it’s in the office or out on site, remember that dehydration is a danger that most of us tend to underestimate. Thirst isn’t a reliable indicator. Make sure a plentiful supply of cool water – rather than tea, coffee and fizzy drinks – is available. As a guide, someone working hard in hot conditions should consume around 250 ml (half a pint) of water every 30 minutes. Where that’s not practicable, perhaps because officers are ‘on the go’ between or around larger sites, advise them to drink half a litre before their shift and a similar volume during rest periods.
When it comes to our admittedly rare periods of high summer temperatures in the UK, we tend to think we know best what we can stand. We can also be our own worst enemies by ignoring the danger signs.
As an employer, be prepared to protect your people from themselves as well as the risk of sun-induced burnout.
Tina Chittenden is Head of the Security Sector at Darwin Clayton