Too hot to work? The rules around temperature in the workplace

Whilst a spell of glorious summer sunshine would usually make for a welcome change from a standard British summertime, once temperatures begin to soar to 30°C or more, the prospect of still going to work may leave many feeling that it’s all a little too hot to handle.

The Met Office has already issued warnings that heatwaves will be hitting our shores throughout the summer months this year, with some forecasts predicting we could reach record-breaking highs of 39 degrees in some areas. Which poses the question, when, if ever, is it too hot to work?

Of course, such scorching sunshine is somewhat rare here in the UK, but that doesn’t mean that employers can just bury their heads in the sand and wait for the storms to blow in when it comes to mounting temperatures in the workplace, and as such, consideration needs to be given as to how to ensure the wellbeing of any workers who are struggling to cope in the extreme heat.  

But just how can the risks be mitigated, and what can be done to ensure the workforce’s safety and productivity? Let’s discuss;

Finding the right temperature

Working in high heat can cause a loss in concentration levels and increased drowsiness, and in more acute cases, people can overheat, or suffer from dizziness, fainting or confusion.

Any of these symptoms can impact productivity, but moreover, they can be extremely dangerous, so it’s important for employers to establish more comfortable working environments whereby their workforce will not only remain focused, but also safe.

Whilst it’s generally agreed that the ideal temperature for working is somewhere between 16 and 24 degrees, it does very much depend on the nature of the work. For example, operatives working outside in direct sunlight whilst wearing PPE will be far more likely to suffer than those who sit in an air-conditioned office.  

In fact, The Chartered Institute of Building Service Engineers recommends that anyone performing ‘heavy work’ in locations such as building sites should only be expected to do so when the temperature is around 13 oC, whilst those in offices or dining rooms would be most productive at 20°C.

Although maintaining such specific temperatures will not always be feasible, especially when the weather is so hot outside, failure to at least consider these recommended conditions could well spiral to create a huge health and safety issue for employers.

What does the law say?

Under UK law, there isn’t currently a maximum temperature whereby it’s deemed too unsafe for work to continue. And this goes for all industries, not just construction. 

In the past, the Trades Union Congress did attempt to impose a maximum temperature of 30°C, but both the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 and the Approved Code of Practice to the Workplace Regulations still simply state that in order for workplaces to remain operational, temperatures must be ‘reasonable’ and/or ‘comfortable’.

Protective regulations

Although there is no legal maximum workplace temperature, the welfare of employees is still very much regulated.

For starters, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 requires employers to ensure the wellbeing, health and safety of their employees, inclusive of maintaining a safe working environment. Employers, therefore, have a duty of care to ensure their employees are not in danger whilst at work, with the risks of extreme heat falling under this obligation. 

When temperatures climb to levels in the high twenties and above, employers of operatives working outside, need to react and undertake assessments as to their on-site working conditions to ensure they comply with this legislation. 

This will involve ensuring the temperature is “reasonable”, in accordance with the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992. There is no clearly defined figure for what reasonable is when considering if employees can continue working and therefore employers will need to consider the specific work being undertaken, where this is being undertaken and what additional risks are. Continuation of work cannot put an employee’s health and safety in jeopardy. 

Fundamentally, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to make a “suitable and sufficient assessment” of the risks to employee health and safety whilst at work (as well as those not in their employment but connected with the conduct of the employer) to identify any areas of concern and take appropriate action where reasonably practicable to combat such risks. 

Alongside this is the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 which states that appropriate PPE must be suitable for the risks and working environment, and that means warm enough in winter but as cool as possible in the heat.

Working outside

On-site construction workers are a group that will be vulnerable to changing temperatures due to the nature of their work and therefore are likely to be severely impacted by rises in temperature. 

It is therefore vital that precautions are taken on site so that workers do not overheat or end up suffering illness, such as heatstroke, dehydration, sun burn or skin cancer amongst other conditions, as a result of extreme heat. 

Additional protections that construction companies should consider implementing as a way to mitigate the risks involved to their employees include:-

  • Wherever feasible, shift patterns should be altered to avoid workers operating at the hottest times of day to minimise exposure to the sun. Introducing shorter workdays until conditions become more manageable might also be an option;
  • Encourage the use of sun protection products, such as sunscreen, and a high factor;
  • Schedules should also allow for regular breaks, and shelter from the sun should be provided where possible; 
  • Add water supplies around the site to encourage regular drinking; 
  • When briefing on health and safety, include advice regarding the high temperature and controls in place to mitigate the effect of this; and 
  • Consider if clothing and equipment can be adjusted to provide greater protection.

Whilst the above adaptations are vital to consider for employee well-being and safety, they will also no doubt benefit the employers through enabling employees to remain working in an environment as comfortable as possible, as well as focused and productive throughout periods of extreme heat.

Keeping cool

Most business owners will have protocols in place for how operations alter when there is snowfall or low temperatures, but it is no less important to have similar processes in place for when the temperatures soar.

Preserving the well-being of staff is crucial for productivity, but also for maintaining staff safety and morale. If that means relaxing policies with regards to dress code or working hours, then so long as safety is not compromised, a pragmatic approach is what’s required.

Though periods of intense heat remain relatively infrequent in the UK, it is still no excuse to not look out for your workforce when they do. By planning ahead for such eventualities, everyone will be able to make the most of the sun when it shines.

Tina Chander is the Head of Employment Law at Midlands law firm, Wright Hassall and deals with contentious and non-contentious employment law issues, acting for small businesses to large national and international corporates. She advises on a variety of employment law matters, including all aspects of employment tribunal proceedings and appeals.

Wright Hassall is a top-ranked regional law firm, providing legal services including: corporate law; commercial law; litigation and dispute resolution; employment law and property law. The firm also advises on contentious probate, business immigration, information governance, professional negligence and private client matters.

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