'The burden is on the employer to show that it has done what is reasonable'
Recently, the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment (MSE) and the National Environment Agency (NEA) launched a Heat Stress Advisory. It’s meant to help the general population make more informed decisions on undertaking prolonged outdoor activities, to minimise the risk of heat stress and heat-related illnesses.
At a time when temperatures in Singapore and other locales have reached record highs, the advisory is a good reminder for employers about the ongoing implications of rising heat levels and worker safety.
Any safety concerns are important, says Gerard Quek, deputy managing partner at PD Legal in Singapore.
“Employers should never take for granted the severity of any potential injury at the workplace.”
Heat-related safety laws for workers
The onus is on the employer to ensure the safety mechanisms are in place, and employers are ultimately responsible for risk assessment and implementation of safety protocols, says Quek.
“If an employer is accused [of having] breached its health and safety obligations to an employee, the burden is on the employer to show that it has done what is reasonable to ensure that the reasonable standards to protect their workers from injury have been satisfied,” he says.
“Such steps will include, but are not limited to: the provision of sufficient water facilities and to enforce adequate water intake by employees; providing shaded areas for work; scheduled rest times; and the implementation of the appropriate clothing for hot and humid working environments.”
In considering what’s reasonable, the obligations of the employer are mainly found in the Workplace Safety and Health Act and its subsidiary legislation, Quek says. Further, the Workplace Safety and Health Guidelines, the compliance checklist and the relevant Ministry of Manpower circulars serve as important standards for the employer to follow. Ultimately, the employer has the burden to ensure employees are protected from such risk.
“For example, if there's a situation where an employee has been advised to sit in a shaded area and to hydrate during a heatwave, and instead, the employee ignores the advice, and subsequently suffers a heat stroke at the workplace, it's still on the employer to prove that they have done what is reasonable to reduce the risk of heat stress to the employee.”
Employers have been fined for not taking adequate measures, such as failing to prevent a workplace fatality from heat stroke.
Last year, Hong Kong employers were urged to make necessary shift arrangements to reduce the risk of heat stroke among staff after the Hong Kong Observatory issued a Very Hot Weather Warning in the financial hub.
Monitoring temperatures for heat stress
The readings are from Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) stations across Singapore, which indicate how hot the body feels, taking into account the air temperature and with humidity, wind speed and solar radiation factored in.
WBGT levels of 33oC or higher expose people to high levels of heat stress and guidelines advise actions like minimising outdoor activities, seeking shade, drinking more fluids and wearing lightweight and light-coloured clothing.
According to the Ministry of Manpower circular, supervisors must be trained to watch out for heat stress symptoms in workers and do their part to remind workers of the need for hydration. It also states heavy physical work or work under the sun should be scheduled to the cooler parts of the day where possible, with adequate rest periods. Cool drinking water and shade should be provided in rest areas for those who spend a significant amount of time in the sun.
Heat stress and payroll considerations
And in situations where employers deem it too hot to work, what are the obligations with regards to paying employees?
“First, the employer must cease work if it is too hot to do so - even if there are adequate measures in place,” says Quek.
“In such a case, the employer should not deduct any salary from the employee. As stated in section 26 of the Employment Act, no unauthorized deduction of salary may be made. If employers deduct salary due to heat stress where it may be too hot for an employee to work, it is likely to constitute an unauthorized deduction by the employer.”