Exposure to EMFs (Electro-Magnetic Fields) in the Workplace
Electromagnetic fields and their effects on health and safety in the workplace is an area which, as yet, has not been thoroughly determined as to it warranting specific legislation beyond an EU Directive.
What are Electromagnetic Fields?Electromagnetic fields, or EMFs, do not just occur at work but are present in our everyday lives wherever there is a flow of electricity and this results in non-ionising radiation. So, whether you’re using a computer at home or simply watching television to boiling a kettle or using your mobile phone, in so doing you will be creating an electromagnetic field and the higher the voltage, the stronger the field. Even our own bodies produce their own electrical activity but it’s when we get ‘manufactured’ EMFs which are stronger in intensity such as with overhead power cables, electrical wiring in buildings or bank upon bank of computer terminals all in the same confined space as well as other electrical appliances such as welding equipment and other hand and machine tools which raises cause for concern.
What Does the Law Say?Back in 2004, the European Parliament implemented a new Directive which aimed to protect the health and safety of workers from the dangers associated with exposure to EMFs. It places a responsibility on the employer to conduct a Risk Assessment and to calculate EMF strengths as well as aiming to reduce or eliminate the risk of exposure wherever possible in addition to a number of other measures. However, this is only a Directive at present and the European Commission announced, only back in October 2007, that they were postponing the deadline for introducing legislation with regards to workers’ exposure to EMFs until April 2012.
What are the Risks?The main hazards tend to revolve around the prolonged exposure to oscillating electric and magnetic fields which can affect body tissue. Electric fields cause body cells to vibrate and to heat up at high frequencies and in oscillating magnetic fields, electric currents are generated in body tissue which acts as a conductor. In combination, the electric changes in body cells and tissue causes dust particles as well as charged gas molecules to be attracted to these parts.
How can This Damage Health?Prolonged high exposure to electromagnetic fields can impair the body’s immune system which lessens the capability of your body’s white blood cells to kill off tumours and combat disease and there is evidence to suggest that this can also have adverse effects on your central nervous system, glands and the brain which are not only connected to certain types of cancer but can also produce other problems both physically and psychologically.
What do Employers Need to Do?From carrying out a thorough risk assessment to training staff to understand and recognise the effects of EMFs, it is an Employer’s Duty to shield workers from the effects of EMFs as much as is possible. This can be achieved by using lower voltage and shielded equipment, restricting the distance between equipment and the worker operating it and by cutting off the current and unplugging any equipment when it is not in use.
As for employees, if they should show signs of fatigue, regular headaches, an inability to concentrate for long periods, if they have trouble sleeping or experience any odd incidences of memory loss, they should visit their GP and also immediately inform their health and safety manager if they suspect their symptoms could be related to excessive exposure to electromagnetic fields.