What you need to know about electromagnetic fields
WHAT ARE ELECTROMAGNETIC FIELDS?
On a basic level, electromagnetic fields (EMFs) are invisible areas of energy and a form of radiation. EMFs are produced wherever electrical equipment (including computers and mobile phones) is used. They are present in virtually all workplaces, and with most electrical equipment, these EMFs have no discernible effect on people.
However, in some cases, electric equipment can create electromagnetic fields that are of a high enough level to cause harm, at which point employers may need to take action.
WHAT HARM CAN ELECTROMAGNETIC FIELDS CAUSE?
- A direct negative impact on a person’s health, such as effects on the central and peripheral nervous system of the body, including tingling, muscle contraction and heart arrhythmia.
- EMFs can interfere with implanted medical devices, e.g. pacemakers and some stitches.
- They can cause ferrous metal objects (those which contain iron) to move in an uncontrolled and dangerous manner.
WHAT TYPE OF EQUIPMENT CAN GENERATE POTENTIAL HARMFUL EMF LEVELS?
Examples of the types of equipment which may generate potential harmful EMF include:
- magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners;
- broadcasting and TV antennas;
- radar and radio transmitters;
- diathermy equipment (which uses energy sources to deep heat parts of the body in medical treatments);
- dielectric heating equipment (which is an insulator that can be polarised by an applied electric field), used in vulcanising, plastics welding or microwave drying;
- anti-theft systems;
- high voltage power lines;
- production and distribution of electricity;
- welding (arc and spot);
- electrical arc furnaces;
- industrial induction heating (e.g. large coils used around the site of a weld);
- some electric vehicles (cars, trains, trams, metros); and
- military and radiofrequency research systems.
WHICH BUSINESSES ARE LIKELY TO BE HIGHER RISK?
The harmful effects from EMF are very rare and don’t happen in most day-to-day situations at work. There are some business sectors in the United Kingdom (UK) where the risks are higher. These are:
- health care;
- energy distribution;
- transport; and
PEOPLE AT RISK
Employees at particular risk include those who have informed you of any condition, which could mean they are more susceptible to the effects from EMF exposure. This includes those who:
- wear active implanted medical devices (AIMDs) such as cardiac pacemakers, or have passive implanted medical devices (PIMDs), e.g. orthopaedic implants or body-worn medical devices (BWMDs) such as insulin pumps;
- are pregnant; or
- work in close proximity to electro-explosive devices (an explosive or pyrotechnic component that initiates an explosive, burning, electrical, or mechanical train, and is activated by the application of electrical energy, also called EED).
WHAT LEGISLATION COVERS EMF?
The Control of Electromagnetic Fields at Work Regulations 2016, known as the CEMFAW Regulations, apply in England, Wales and Scotland.*
- They require employers to assess whether the exposure of employees to EMFs exceeds the exposure limit values (ELVs) specified to protect employees from the health and sensory effects of EMFs.
- The majority of employers will not need to take any additional action to reduce the risk from EMFs.
- If the exposure assessment shows the levels are above the ELVs, the employer must develop and implement an action plan to reduce exposure.
- If the exposure assessment shows the ELVs are, or may be exceeded, or that the indirect effects of action limits (AL) are exceeded, or there are employees at particular risk, a risk assessment must be conducted.
*In Northern Ireland The Control of Electromagnetic Fields at Work Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016 apply.
There are very few circumstances when the Regulations do apply. These circumstances are set by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THIS SUBJECT?
EMF is a complex and technical area. To find out more about EMF visit The International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP). This independent organisation provides scientific advice and guidance on the health and environmental effects of non-ionising radiation.
In the UK, the HSE provides guidance to employers in the free publication Electromagnetic fields at work: A guide to the Control of Electromagnetic Fields at Work Regulations 2016 (HSG281).
In Northern Ireland, the Health and Safety Executive Northern Ireland (HSENI) provides guidance – see their publication Electromagnetic fields (EMFs).