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Electromagnetic fields at work

Updated: Feb 16

One of the features of modern life is the vast number of electronic devices by which we are surrounded. You are doubtless reading this article on one, and each of these devices emits an electromagnetic field.

For the majority of devices, the level of the electromagnetic field is below the levels that are deemed dangerous but there are certain pieces of equipment that present a risk and therefore need to be regulated.

The Control of Electromagnetic Fields at Work Regulations 2016 (CEFAW) came into force on 1st July 2016 and are intended to provide further controls for these devices.

Most workplaces will need to take no additional action as they will not have such devices installed. If workplaces have higher risk equipment installed, the regulations will require further action to reduce the risk of exposure to the stronger electromagnetic fields. This action will take the form of a risk assessment and suitable control measures.

Until now, the risk from electromagnetic fields has been covered by existing legislation, including the Health and Safety at Work Act and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations.

EU Directive 2013/35/EU, passed in June 2013 gave employers a new responsibility to assess the levels of electromagnetic fields to which employee might be exposed against specific thresholds.

The new regulations, brought in by the Government to put the Directive into place, cover the responsibilities that are not already covered by existing legislation.

What are the health effects of EMFs?

Electromagnetic fields affect the human body in many different ways. They can cause sensory and health effects as well as interfering with medical devices such as pacemakers and hearing aids.

People affected may notice sensations such as nausea, vertigo, a metallic taste in the mouth, flickering sensations in peripheral vision (which may include hallucinatory effects) and imagined sounds such as clicks, buzzes and hums. Health effects can vary but may include tingling, thermal stress and even burns in extreme cases.

The requirements of the regulations

Employers are required to carry out an assessment of the levels of electromagnetic fields to which their employees are exposed.

They must then ensure that the exposure falls below a set of Exposure Limit Values (ELVs) and assess the risk of exposure. Those risks must then be eliminated or at the very least minimised. Account should be taken of employees who are at particular risk such as pregnant women and those with medical devices either implanted or worn.

Having identified and assessed the risks and the exposure limits, the employer will need to devise an action plan to ensure compliance and put it into place, then monitor it to make sure that it is working effectively.

All employees should be given information about the steps that the employer is taking to remove, reduce or control the risks.

A health surveillance programme should be set up to identify and monitor any problems that may have arisen from electromagnetic fields.

What equipment is high risk?

As has already been mentioned, most of the equipment in a normal workplace environment will not exceed the exposure limit values and will require no additional action. However, certain items may exceed the limit values and these could include:

  • MRI equipment

  • Resistance welding, manual spot and seam welding.

  • Dielectric heating and welding

  • Magnetic particle inspection (crack detection)

  • Maintenance of radar or high-powered communications systems

  • Medical diagnostic and treatment equipment using electromagnetic fields

  • Electrically powered trains and trams

  • Furnaces, arc and induction melting

  • Broadcast & telecoms base stations

  • Microwave heating and drying

  • Induction heating

  • Induction soldering

  • Radar – air traffic control, weather & long range

  • Radio and TV broadcasting systems and devices

  • Radio frequency or microwave energised lighting equipment

  • Industrial electrolysis

  • Industrial magnetiser and demagnetisers

If an employer uses any of this equipment, they should assess the level of electromagnetic field to which their employees are exposed. The risk assessment should include:

  • the Action Levels and Exposure Limit Values

  • the frequency, level, duration and type of EMFs, including the areas of the employee’s body that are affected and the variations between areas in the workplace

  • direct effects of the EMF

  • whether there is equipment that can be used to reduce the level of exposure to EMFs

  • the results of any health surveillance

  • manufacturers’ information

  • other health & safety related information

  • multiple sources of exposure

  • indirect effects

  • workers at particular risk

  • simultaneous exposure to multiple frequency fields.

Once the risk assessment has been carried out, it should, as with any other assessment, be documented, controls implemented, communicated, and regularly reviewed. Exposure reduction measures are probably the easiest way to ensure that the exposure limit variables are not exceeded.

Ways to achieve this could include:

  • moving the worker further away from the EMF source, or

  • installing screening.

Should these measures not be sufficient, the employer needs to devise and implement an action plan. This will probably consist of steps including:

  • use of signs,

  • access controls and floor markings;

  • maintenance arrangements;

  • choosing equipment producing less intense EMFs;

  • supervision and management;

  • training requirements;

  • health surveillance and personal protective equipment etc.;

  • use of physical screening or similar health protection mechanisms.

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