A fire alarm at a hospital in Hampshire went off after a glass stairwell reached temperatures of 50C, concerned staff have said.
A nurse at Lymington New Forest Hospital told HuffPost UK that the stairwell had to be closed for use as the bannister, which is made of metal, got so hot last week that it would have burnt anyone who touched it.
Trade unions have now warned that patients and hospital workers are being put at risk from overheating, as the summer heatwave takes its toll on hospitals, many of which don’t have air conditioning.
Some hospitals are getting so hot that patients and relatives are passing out and vomiting, according to the Royal College of Nursing.
The Hampshire nurse, who asked not to be named, said there is no air conditioning on the wards despite the hospital being built just 12 years ago.
“The design of the hospital is mostly floor to ceiling windows so it’s like working in a greenhouse. It gets over 30C on the ward and the windows barely open,” she said.
A spokeswoman for the hospital denied the fire alarm had gone off due to the hot weather and instead blamed a faulty sensor, although the nurse said that staff were told otherwise.
On Monday the Met Office issued an amber heatwave alert, with people being warned to stay out of the sun until Friday.
Monday officially reached the hottest day of the year as the mercury reached 33.3C at Santon Downham in Suffolk.
The sustained heatwave has put unexpected pressure on the NHS, according to a leading medic.
Dr Nick Scriven, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said some NHS hospitals “have bounced unexpectedly from the recent extreme winter into a summer crisis,” with many seeing large increases in attendances and admissions due to dehydration, particularly among the elderly.
But unions and hospital staff warn that it’s not just the heat outside which is putting people at risk.
Anna Crossley, of the Royal College of Nursing, said newer hospital buildings are more at risk of overheating than older ones as they are often designed with a cooler and wetter climate in mind.
She added that nurses are responsible both for their patients but also themselves, but said taking a break to rest or drink water can be “challenging” in understaffed areas, she said.
The heat was having an “awful” impact on both patients and staff at Lymington New Forest, the nurse said.
The patients on her ward are “very sleepy and are not engaging or moving as much as normal”.
“This increases their risk of deep vein thrombosis, reduces physiotherapy and the additional time spent is bad for their chests, increasing the risk of hospital acquired pneumonia. They are also drinking less, especially the elderly, causing urine infections and increased tiredness.”
The staff are also struggling and are “sweaty, tired, dehydrated and irritable,” she said.
Their uniforms are made of a thick material, and every day they have arguments with management about being allowed to wear scrubs, which are much cooler, the nurse said. To be allowed to change, the nurses are required to wait for someone in senior management to authorise it based on how hot it is that day.
She said: “This person isn’t on our ward so should not get an opinion, they are sat in an air-conditioned office, not doing physically demanding work, not rolling 16-stone patients or being in bathrooms with no windows, nor running around the ward working up a sweat in ridiculous heat in heavy thick tight uniforms.”
The nurse said the solution was simple. “If we had air-con, patients would not be as lethargic and would eat and drink and move more, they’d be more well and discharged sooner. Staff would be happier and healthier and not as exhausted.”
The Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust, which manages the hospital, said that staff and patients were top priority during the heatwave.
Racheal Marsh, a spokeswoman for the Trust said a “continuity plan” had been activated as a result of the high temperatures.
She said: “Measures [have been put] in place to create a safe and comfortable environment for staff and the people who use our services.”
She added that staff and patients were encouraged to drink more fluids, that room temperatures were monitored and that staff were allowed to wear alternative uniforms to keep them cool.
Crossley said many nurses had got in touch with the RCN to say they have not been able to stay properly hydrated as some hospitals do not allow water bottles on wards, and there is no time to take breaks on understaffed wards.
She said: “Nursing staff should not be expected to work 12 hours shifts in stifling heat with no access to water. Not only is this extremely uncomfortable, it is dangerous, both for them, and the patients they care for.
“Dehydration in overheated hospitals is a health risk and can lead to serious conditions - including urinary tract infections and acute kidney injury. By law, patients, relatives and staff must have easy access to water.
“Dehydration also affects cognition, which could lead to mistakes. Hospital management should allow water bottles on shift so staff can stay hydrated and make sure they have breaks. This is an issue of patient safety.
She said it was the responsibility of employers to check indoor temperatures are recorded regularly during the hottest periods for all patient areas so that staff can work together to reduce internal temperatures.
This could be achieved by shading windows, turning off unnecessary equipment and lights, closely monitoring patients who may be more susceptible to the heat, helping patients access cooler rooms, and considering heat in the discharge arrangements for those going home,” she said.
The TUC agrees that as the heatwave continues, employers need to take the issue seriously. When the workplace gets too hot it is more than just an issue about comfort, they warned.
High temperatures mean workers are at risk of dizziness, fainting, or even heat cramps, loss of concentration and increased tiredness, which means that workers are more likely to put themselves or others at risk and an increase in the likelihood of accidents due to reduced concentration, slippery, sweaty palms or people ditching uncomfortable safety gear, according to the union.
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said workers should be allowed to wear cooler clothing and that bosses should provide fans and cold water to drink.