From next month, employers will be required to consider specifically the risks posed to their employees by electromagnetic fields (EMFs).

What are EMFs?

EMFs occur wherever a piece of electrical or electronic equipment is used, from an electric kettle or lap top computer through to an MRI scanner or satellite dish. EMFs are likely, therefore, to be present in most modern workplaces. Although there is no current scientific evidence that EMFs are responsible for long-term health consequences, it is well established that (depending on the frequency of the EMFs waves) they can cause short-term effects, such as nausea, vertigo, twitching and heating up of body tissue.

What changes are being made to the law?

Subject to Parliamentary approval, the Control of Electromagnetic Fields at Work Regulations 2016 (CEMFAW) will be introduced on 1 July 2016. CEMFAW transposes into UK law the requirements under EU directive 2013/35/EU on the minimum health and safety requirements regarding the exposure of workers to the risks arising from physical agents (electromagnetic fields) (20th individual Directive within the meaning of Article 16(1) of Directive 89/391/EEC).

Although employers are already required under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 to assess the general risks posed to employees and others by risks posed by their undertaking, CEMFAW relates specifically to risks posed by EMFs. For example, CEMFAW will require employers to:

  • ensure that exposure by employees to EMFs is below the relevant exposure limit values (ELVs) (regulation 4);
    assess the levels of EMFs to which their employees may be exposed (regulation 5);
  • where appropriate
    • devise and implement an action plan to comply with exposure limits (regulation 7);
    • assess the risk of an employee’s exposure to EMFs (regulation 8); and
    • eliminate or minimise the risks from EMFs (regulation 9);
  • provide information and training to employees on any particular risks posed by EMFs (regulation 10); and
  • provide health surveillance and medical examinations to employees who are exposed to EMFs in excess of the ELVs (regulation 11).

The obligations relating to ELVs do not apply to military installations or during military activities, to the use of MRI scanners in the health sector or where the HSE has granted a written exemption to employers.

How can employers assess the levels of EMFs to which their employees may be exposed?

The first step for all employers under CEMFAW will be to assess the levels of EMFs to which employees are exposed. Fortunately, draft guidance published by the Health and Safety Executive (“HSE”) contains a table setting out a non-exhaustive list of low exposure electrical and electronic equipment (including many items used in offices, such as computers, IT equipment and photocopiers) and advises, that where a business uses only these items, no further action need be taken unless there are employees at particular risk (such as expectant mothers) or exposure could present a risk of indirect effects (for example, interference with passive implanted or body worn medical devices). The HSE guidance also contains lists of those sources of EMFs and activities which may pose risks (for example, radio and TV broadcasting systems and devices, dielectric heating and welding, and industrial electrolysis).

Although ELVs set out the limits of exposure to EMFs, they can be difficult and expensive to measure directly. Therefore, CEMFAW also contains a separate set of values, Action Levels (“ALs”), which can be measured more easily. Some ALs are tied to ELVs, and where an AL is not exceeded, the corresponding ELV will not have been exceeded either. Conversely, where an AL is exceeded, further consideration and assessment should be given as to whether the corresponding ELV has been exceeded. Other ALs are not tied to ELVs, but exceedance of them may indicate the risk of potential indirect effects.

Apart from the lists in the guidance, there are other sources of information that employers can use when assessing the levels of risk, including reports of ill health by employees, equipment manufacturer data, sector or industry standards and guidelines, and trade association information. If an employer has 5 or more employees, the assessment should be suitably recorded. The assessment should be reviewed if there is reason to suspect it is no longer valid or if there has been a significant change in the matter to which it relates.

What are the practical implications for employers?

Critics might argue that CEMFAW represents yet another tier of bureaucracy for employers to contend with. However, it is reckoned that the vast majority of employers will not be required to do anything more than assess the levels of EMFs to which their employees may be exposed and that, in most cases, employers will be able to do this without specialist assistance (for example, from an external consultancy). Whilst that remains to be seen, if it is correct, then CEMFAW will have struck a fair balance between protecting employees and not over-burdening employers.