Britain appears to be experiencing hotter and hotter temperatures, but that doesn’t mean everyone will be able to head to the beach to cool off. For most workers it is “business as usual” regardless of the weather, but are you entitled to any protections when the workplace temperature soars? Or, can you clock off altogether once the mercury reaches a certain level? We consider employers legal obligations to their staff in high temperatures.
Record breaking UK temperatures
In July 2019, the record for the highest temperature officially recorded in the UK was toppled when the Met Office confirmed a temperature of 38.7C in Cambridge, exceeding the previous record set in August 2003 in Kent of 38.5C.
Concerns about the effects of global warming appear to be justified by ever increasing temperatures and it looks like heatwaves could become a regular occurrence in the UK.
Is it too hot to work?
It may come as a surprise to learn that there are no legally enforceable minimum or maximum workplace temperatures. The only legal obligations is that: “During working hours, the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be reasonable.”
This obligation only extends to workers; it does not apply to members of the public who may be in the workplace such as customers at a shopping centre or in a cinema.
What are ‘reasonable’ workplace temperatures?
What is a reasonable heat to work in will entirely depend on the type of workplace. A reasonable temperature will also depend on the work activity being carried out and the environmental conditions of the workplace.
For example, in manufacturing industries such as glass works or foundries, temperatures will naturally be higher to start with due to heat being generated by the processes involved. However, in such environments it is still possible to work safely provided appropriate controls are present.
It is not just air temperature which needs to be taken into account. Other factors such as radiant temperature, humidity and air velocity are also significant. What is reasonable will be very different in an office or warehouse, where employees are not used to or trained for dealing with extreme heat.
Minimum workplace temperatures
The Health and Safety Executive’s Approved Code of Practice suggests the minimum temperature in a workplace should normally be at least 16C, or if the work involves rigorous physical effort at least 13C. However, these temperatures are not absolute legal requirements; the employer has a duty to determine what reasonable comfort will be in particular circumstances.
Should I complain about the temperatures at work?
If you are experiencing prolonged thermal discomfort then speak to your manager in the first instance. If a number of employees are finding work difficult in the conditions, then your employer should take action as it will be clear that the temperature is not reasonable.
Employers have a basic legal duty to protect the health and safety of all their workers. As workplace temperatures rise, associated health risks (for example, dehydration) might arise, which an employer needs to take steps to mitigate.
What can an employer do in extreme heat?
Every employer has a basic legal duty to do all that is reasonable to take care of their employee’s health (both physical and mental) and safety in the workplace. The first step should be for an employer to undertake a risk assessment with regards to hot weather.
This will help to identify where within the organisation employees are particularly at risk from high temperatures and what those risks are. Certain staff, such as those who are older or pregnant or disabled, may be more vulnerable to the heat.
Once this information has been established then effective methods for mitigating the risks identified can be considered.
When temperatures are particularly high, employers need to consider what measures they can take to assist employees. Given the seasonal nature of high temperatures, many of these steps need only be temporary. Examples include:
- Relaxing formal workplace dress codes and uniform requirements (although this may not be possible in work environments where personal protective clothing must be worn).
- Allowing people to work at a slower rate, giving longer breaks or rotating workers more frequently.
- Moving workstations out of direct sunlight.
- Providing blinds and shades.
- Postponing certain work until weather is cooler.
- Being more flexible over when hours are worked to allow for an earlier/later start or shortening shifts temporarily.
- Providing desk fans and/or mobile air conditioning units.
- Reminding all staff to stay well hydrated and encourage this by providing free drinks.
Ideally, employers will consult with employees or their representatives to establish sensible means to cope with high temperatures.
Given the fact that we are seeing extreme temperatures more regularly, it would be helpful for employers to establish a policy – ideally in consultation with staff and their representatives – which sets out how the employer will respond to high temperatures as well as what is expected from employees. This should be added to the staff handbook and communicated to all employees.
Further information on workplace temperatures
The Health and Safety Executive has lots of information on extreme heat at work on its website. Including:
How can we help you?
Got questions about your rights in the heat? Then talk to our employment law specialists today. We’ll help you figure out the best way forward for you.