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Electromagnetic fields

Electromagnetic fields

What are electromagnetic fields?

Electromagnetic fields (EMFs) are produced whenever electrical or electronic equipment is switched on. Exposure to EMFs can have long-term and short-term health effects that vary depending on the level of the frequency (measured in hertz) emitted by the equipment and duration of exposure. Health effects include:

  • Physical effects - such as micro-shocks, burning of tissue or rise in core body temperature
  • Sensory effects - such as nausea, vertigo, metallic taste in the mouth, buzzing noise
  • Indirect health effects - such as electric shocks, interference with implanted medical devices, attraction to ferromagnetic devices causing objects to move and collide with someone

See for more information on what they are and known health effects.

What law applies?

  • The Control of Electromagnetic Fields at Work Regulations 2016
  • The Control of Electromagnetic Fields at Work Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016

Your legal responsibility

You are legally required to:

  • Find out the levels of EMFs to which your workers are exposed.
  • Where necessary, undertake a risk assessment and record your findings.
  • Ensure that the levels of exposure are below certain limits (known as 'exposure limit values').
  • Ensure that you particularly consider workers who are pregnant and workers with implanted medical devices.
  • Where necessary, create and keep a copy of, an action plan to remove or reduce the exposure levels of EMFs and ensure compliance with the exposure limits.
  • Provide information and training to workers of any particular risks posed by EMFs and details of any action taken to remove or reduce the exposure levels.
  • Review the levels of exposure whenever you have a reason to suspect that they are no longer valid, or whenever there has been a significant change that can affect the exposure levels.
  • Survey the health of, and provide medical examinations to, all workers who are exposed to EMFs above the exposure limit values and who report effects on their health. Appropriate records must be kept of the surveillance and/or medical examinations/reports.

Measuring exposure levels

The regulations use 2 sets of values for measuring EMFs, exposure limit values (ELVs) and action levels.

ELVs are the legal limits of EMF exposure that is allowed to affect the inside of a worker's body.

As ELVs are usually impossible, or very expensive to measure, the regulations set 'action levels' that are easier to calculate.

If an action level is not exceeded, the ELV won't be exceeded and a risk assessment is not necessary. If an action level is exceeded, although it is possible that the ELV won't be, you will need to complete a risk assessment (and action plan).

Some action levels in the regulations represent levels where the indirect effects of EMFs may start to occur.

Performing the assessment

You must initially determine the level of exposure to EMFs of your workers.

You can use the following information to help you perform the assessment:

  • Tables 2,3,5,6 and 7 in the HSE guidance on the regulations and in Northern Ireland also the following supplement EMF NI supplement (pdf)
  • Evidence from your own records, such as reports of ill health by workers caused by EMFs
  • Safety-related information, such as on emissions, provided by the manufacturer or distributer of the equipment
  • Industry standards/guidelines provided for your industry sector, including information from trade associations and other organisations related to your industry sector
  • Exposure databases (if available)

You must review the levels of exposure whenever:

  • you have a reason to suspect that the last assessment is no longer valid; or
  • there has been a significant change that can affect the exposure levels.

Risk assessments

When no risk assessment is required

You will not have to undertake a risk assessment under the regulations if all of the following are true:

  • Your business has only low-exposure equipment listed in Table 2 of the HSE guidance, or an exposure limit value (ELV) for a work activity isn't exceeded
  • You have no workers who have informed you that they are pregnant
  • You have no workers who have informed you that they have an implanted medical device (see the end of this article)
  • You have no workers who are at risk of the indirect health effects of EMFs listed in Table 1 of the HSE guidance.

When only a limited risk assessment is required

If any of the above apply to your business, you will be required to perform a risk assessment for the specific activities that are above the action levels, or the workers that are affected by exposure to EMFs.

For example: let's say your business contains only the equipment listed in Table 2 and none of your workers are at risk of indirect health effects from EMFs, but you have a pregnant worker. You will have to undertake a risk assessment only in respect of that pregnant worker, and not the whole workforce.

You can discontinue a risk assessment and will not have to produce an action plan if:

  • The ELVs related to determining sensory effects are exceeded (when work is being done), but you have complied with the related safety conditions set out in the regulations
  • You have met the HSE's required safety conditions for specific work activities exempted from ELVs.

Requirements when performing a risk assessment

Where necessary, a risk assessment must include consideration of:

  • The action levels
  • ELVs when the indirect effects of EMFs may start to occur
  • Information available from the manufacturer or distributor of the equipment
  • Information obtained from any appropriate health surveillance or medical examination
  • Other health and safety-related information, such as from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE or HSENI in Northern Ireland) or trade associations.
  • The type, frequency, level and duration of EMFs in the workplace, including the distribution over a worker's body and the variations between areas in the workplace
  • Whether there are multiple sources of exposure to EMFs
  • Whether there is simultaneous exposure to multiple EMF frequencies
  • The direct and indirect effects effects of EMFs
  • Pregnant workers: any risks should be reduced or removed (see table 5 of the HSE guidance for a non-exhaustive list of examples of sources of EMFs which may pose a risk to them)
  • Workers with implanted medical devices: ask them to get information/instructions about their device from the manufacturer and advice from the person who installed it, and ask them if they could be affected (see table 6 of the HSE guidance for a non-exhaustive list of examples of sources of EMFs which may pose a risk to them)
  • The existence of replacement equipment designed to reduce the level of exposure to EMFs

Action plans

If your assessment finds that the ELVs are exceeded, you must create and implement an action plan.

An action plan will not be required if:

  • The ELVs are not exceeded.
  • The ELVs related to determining sensory effects are exceeded when work is being done, but you have complied with the related safety conditions set out in the regulations.
  • You have met the HSE's required safety conditions for specific work activities exempted from ELVs.

Contents of an action plan

You must include the following in any action plan:

  • Measures that limit the duration and/or intensity of EMF emissions, such as installing screening or moving the worker further away from the EMF source (in many situations ELVs are only exceeded where the worker is close to the EMF source)
  • Using, replacing or hiring equipment that emits less intense EMFs (taking account of the work to be done)
  • Other working methods that result in less exposure to EMFs, such as regular and appropriate maintenance of equipment and design of workplaces
  • The use of signage, floor markings and access controls to high EMF exposure areas
  • Providing personal protective equipment where appropriate, e.g. insulating shoes, gloves
  • Training workers on the dangers of exposure to EMFs (such as spark discharges and indirect health effects) and procedures to manage exposure within the ELVs set by the regulations

You should consult with any trade union safety representative, or other worker representative, when deciding risk control measures.

If you are exempt from producing an action plan, but produce one anyway, it will still be good practice to record how you have reduced EMF exposure.

Workers with implanted medical devices

Implanted medical devices are divided into 3 categories:

1. Active devices that have a power source, e.g. pacemakers, neuro-stimulators and drug infusion pumps

2. Passive devices, e.g. orthopaedic joints, pins, plates, screws, stents, annuloplasty rings and contraceptive devices

3. Body-worn devices, e.g. hearing aids, drug delivery patches, insulin pumps and glucose monitoring systems

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