The UK is currently experiencing a heatwave with temperatures expected to reach 97F (36C) today and continue until as far as Thursday. This is perfect weather for holiday makers but not so good for staff without air-con, as they struggle to work under hot and humid conditions at home, in offices, shops, warehouses and factories.
A heatwave is an extreme weather event where over a period of 3 days, the daily maximum temperature meets or exceeds the threshold for that county. The Met Office have just issued a level 3 heat health alert and flood warnings for the north where thunderstorms are expected.
So what are your legal responsibilities when temperatures soar?
You may be surprised that there are no legal limits for maximum working temperatures. However employers do have a legal obligation to ensure that the temperature in the workplace is “reasonable”, as outlined by the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992. What is “reasonable” can depend on the type of work being done and the type of workplace, so for example, is it manual work in a hot kitchen, or office based work with air conditioning? Regardless of these factors, the health and safety at work law requires employers to look after their employees by:
- Keeping the temperature at a comfortable level, also known as thermal comfort
- Providing clean and fresh air
HSE provides further guidance for employers by suggesting that they consider the following measures in high temperatures. They also have a thermal comfort checklist which can be downloaded here to see if you need to carry out a more detailed risk assessment.
- Providing fans, e.g. desk, pedestal or ceiling-mounted fans
- Ensuring that windows can be opened
- Shading employees from direct sunlight with blinds or by using reflective film on windows to reduce the heating effects of the sun
- Situating workstations away from direct sunlight or other situations or objects that that radiate heat (e.g. plant or machinery)
- Relaxing formal dress code – but you must ensure that personal protective equipment is provided and used if required
- Allowing sufficient/additional breaks to enable employees to get cold drinks or cool down
- Providing additional facilities e.g. cold water dispensers (water is preferable to caffeine or carbonated drinks)
- Introducing formal systems of work to limit exposure, e.g. flexible working patterns, job rotation, workstation rotation etc.
- Placing insulating materials around hot pipes
- Providing air-cooling or air-conditioning plant
In some workplaces, extreme temperatures are created by the work such as in manufacturing and will need to be managed effectively to prevent these leading to serious health problems. Employees working under these conditions are encouraged to seek specific advice.
ACAS are another good source of guidance for working in hot temperatures, covering advice on areas such as getting to work; generally speaking, hot weather shouldn’t affect journeys to work, but occasionally there may be an impact on public transport, in particular train companies who may need to reduce their speed limits in case the tracks buckle which may result in late arrivals, having a knock on effect on timekeeping.
Hot weather can also have an impact on vulnerable workers or those with a disability, and you should be considering making reasonable adjustments in such circumstances.
The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has been campaigning for a change in the law to introduce a new maximum indoor temperature of 86F (30C), or 80.6F (27C), for those doing strenuous jobs and recommended:
'The most simple way for staff to keep cool inside when it's scorching outside is being able to work in more casual clothing. While shorts and vest tops may not be appropriate for all, nobody should be made to wilt in the heat for the sake of keeping up appearances.”
Bosses who provide a cool and comfortable work environment are going to get more out of their staff. Workers who are unable to dress down in more appropriate summer clothing, or who work in offices without air-conditioning, fans or a plentiful supply of cool drinking water, are going to feel lethargic, and lack inspiration and creativity.'
The exceptional weather can impose some challenges for employers, but the best advice is to speak to your staff to seek their opinions on what you can do, to create a more comfortable working environment.
It’s been said already but top tips are:
- Engage with your staff and recognise how the heat is affecting them
- Be aware of the effects the heat is having on your staff such as heat stress and dehydration
- Provide plenty of drinking water and ventilation
- Switch fans and air conditioning units on
- Use blinds and curtains to block sunlight out
- Relax your dress code
- Consider flexible working arrangements
- Review your current working habits and practices and, if necessary, make temporary changes
It also a good time to improve morale and motivation. Going out and buying all your staff cold drinks, ice cream or ice lollies can make the work place a friendlier and more comfortable place to work in this heat.
It works a treat for our staff!