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Estonia is hit by a heatwave. What can be done to prevent extreme heat at the workplace?

According to the Occupational Health and Safety Act an employer should design and furnish their workplace in such a way that it is possible to avoid occupational accidents and damage to health, and to maintain an employee’s work ability and well-being. The air temperature and humidity and air velocity at the workplace should be appropriate for the performance of official duties and it should be ensured that there is fresh air in workplaces.

A specific temperature for workplaces has not been laid down in legislation. The indoor climate at a workplace – air temperature and humidity and air velocity – should be appropriate for the performance of official duties and it should be ensured that there is fresh air in workplaces. A suitable indoor climate should be determined with regard to the number of employees in a workroom, the mental and physical demands placed on the employees, the size of the workroom, the specifics of the work equipment used, and the nature of the technological process (subsection 6 (4) of the Occupational Health and Safety Act).

The recommended temperature ranges depending on the nature of the work are as follows:

  • 20–25 °C for work that is performed sitting down and does not require physical exertion;
  • 19–24 °C for work performed sitting down or standing, i.e. that involves walking and a certain degree of physical exertion;
  • 17–23 °C for work involving walking, moving small objects (up to 1 kg) while standing or sitting and involves some physical exertion;
  • 16–22 °C for work that is performed standing and involves walking and manual handling of smaller (up to 10 kg) loads which require moderate physical exertion;
  • 15–20 °C for work involving continuous movement, moving and handling of heavy loads (over 10 kg) which require a great deal of physical exertion.

If the employer cannot immediately ensure a suitable temperature at the workplace, other means should be used to avoid the risks of working in a hot working environment. For instance, this can involve enabling employees to take sufficient rest breaks in rooms with a suitable temperature and to use the shower during the working day, providing the opportunity to drink mineral water, etc.

Below are some recommendations on how to survive hot days at work:

  • A proper ventilation system and air conditioning are undoubtedly beneficial in the case of hot weather.
  • If these are not available or there are not enough, the employer needs to find a solution that would be the least harmful to employees. For example, it is appropriate to give additional breaks included in the working time as long as the temperature is too high. If the temperature drops, the normal organisation of work can be resumed.
  • Sufficient quantities of drinking water must be available at the workplace and additional breaks included in the working time should be taken in a cool (but not too cold) resting room. On hot summer days, it is essential to provide employees with high-quality drinking water, preferably with a high mineral content, as sweating removes salt and minerals from the body.
  • A temporary change in the working time is worth considering, i.e. starting the working day earlier in the morning. 
  • If you or your colleagues start to feel unwell at the workplace due to the heat, you should immediately notify the employer of the fact that the performance of your duties is hindered by the heat. The employee should immediately go to a cool and shaded place where they can rest and drink some water. In the case of a more serious health problem, medical advice should be sought.
  • Personal protective equipment must also be used in the case of hot weather. The use of surgical masks at the working environment to prevent the spread of coronavirus is up to the employer. If, in the course of the risk assessment, the employer finds that the use of masks is not necessary due to a decreased number of new cases, the employees no longer have to wear a mask. If the risk assessment shows that the use of masks is still necessary, the employees are obliged to wear them. The fact that respiratory protective equipment can impose an extra burden on employees must be taken into account when organising rest time.

In the event of problems, first contact your immediate superior and then the working environment representative or specialist. Communication is essential to jointly find solutions.

If the above conditions are not met at your workplace and verbal communication with the employer does not change the situation, we recommend addressing your employer in writing and describing the problems at your workplace. 

Note also that, pursuant to clause 14 (5) 4) of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, an employee has the right to refuse to carry out work if the performance of which endangers his or her health or that of other persons. When refusing to carry out work, the employer or their representative and the working environment representative must be immediately informed thereof. However, before refusing to carry out work, we recommend informing the employer of the problem in writing and requesting that it be resolved. You should also provide information on the refusal to work in writing as soon as possible so that you can provide evidence later, if necessary, as to why you refused to work (there is a risk to your health, you are not just refusing to work). This means that if the temperature in the working environment is so high that the employee feels unwell, the employee must be able to stop work and go to a cooler room to recover. If necessary, a doctor should be consulted.