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

Whilst a spot of UK summer sun might sound appealing on the face of it, one thing is for sure – once those temperatures start to rise over 30deg C, the thought of trying to carry on seamlessly with normal working life will leave many people feeling a bit hot under the collar.

The Met Office has predicted that we’re destined for a summer gripped by soaring temperatures, with forecasts estimating record-breaking highs of 41 degrees in some parts of the country, which raises the very valid question, at what point does it become too hot to work?

Bona fide heatwaves are somewhat of a rarity in the UK, but that doesn’t mean that employers can simply hope for the best when temperatures start to rise in the workplace. On the contrary, they need to really consider exactly what can be done to help alleviate the risks and ensure the safety and efficiency of their teams. 

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 13deg C, whilst those in offices or dining rooms would be most productive at 20deg 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.

Laws and regulations

There is currently no maximum temperature stipulated by UK Law, whereby it’s deemed too unsafe for workers to continue.

The Trades Union Congress has previously recommended a that a maximum temperature of 30deg C should be imposed, but both the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 and the Approved Code of Practice to the Workplace Regulations simply state that workplace temperatures must be ‘reasonable’ and/or ‘comfortable’.

Although there is no legal maximum temperature in the workplace, employee wellbeing is still regulated.

The Code of Practice states that workers should be supplied with the appropriate tools to monitor indoor temperatures, and that ‘effective and sustainable’ ventilation be provided. Furthermore, the Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations 1999 specifically asks for additional concessions to be made to mitigate the increased risk faced by pregnant women in extreme temperatures.

Indoor workspaces

Wherever the workforce is based indoors, it’s best practice to monitor not just the ambient temperature but also the humidity, taking into consideration any additional internal heat sources and dress code to ensure optimum comfort.

Offices should be designed with natural ventilation as a priority, and with space for fans if necessary. People should also be moved away from sitting directly next to windows to both allow better airflow and ensure they are not exposed to direct sunlight.

To protect those working in hotter indoor environments such as kitchens or laundry rooms, precautions to prevent dehydration are a priority, this might mean increased breaks, cooler airconditioned breakout areas, or the provision of additional hydration.

Working outside

Outdoor workers face the additional risk of heatstroke or skin cancer, so should always be provided with adequate sunscreen, hats, extra water and possibly shaded work areas to stay protected.

Wherever feasible, shift patterns should be altered to avoid workers operating at the hottest times of day. Schedules should also allow for regular shaded breaks.

Soaring temperatures can affect concentration, which in manual settings can be incredibly dangerous, so introducing shorter workdays until conditions become more manageable might also be an option.

Keeping cool

Most businesses will have protocols for how they operate during snowfall or in low temperatures, but it is no less crucial to have the right procedures in place to tackle soaring temperatures too.

Safeguarding the well-being of staff is necessary not only for productivity but also for preserving staff morale. If there are workplace policies which dictate expectations for dress codes or working hours, then it is advisable to adopt a sympathetic approach to lifting restrictions. 

Whilst extreme temperatures are still comparatively uncommon in the UK, there is still no excuse to not look after your workforce properly when they do hit. Planning ahead properly for such situations should ensure that everyone can still make the most of the sun when it shines.

Tina Chander is a partner and head of the employment team at Midlands law firm, Wright Hassall. Tina deals with both contentious and non-contentious employment law issues acting acts for employers of all sizes ranging from small businesses to large national and international businesses. She advises in connection with a variety of employment law matters, including all aspects of employment tribunal proceedings and appeals.

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