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Is it ever too hot to work?

Whilst a spot of summer sun is usually a welcome change from a standard British climate, once temperatures begin to soar above 30oC, the idea of still maintaining a job may leave many feeling that it’s all a little too hot to handle.

The Met Office has already issued warnings that heatwaves may continue throughout the summer, with some forecasts predicting even more record-breaking highs in some areas. Which leaves the question, is it ever simply too hot to work?

Historically, such scorching temperatures have been a rarity in the UK, but employers shouldn’t be tempted to consider them ‘freak’ occurrences because when it comes to mounting temperatures in the workplace, major consideration needs to be given as to how best to ensure the wellbeing of workers struggling to cope in the heat.

In this article, Tina Chander is the Head of Employment Law at Wright Hassall 

Tina Chander

With last month’s record temperatures anything but ‘fresh’ in our minds, in this article Tina Chander, the Head of Employment Law at Wright Hassall tells us what legislation says, how the risks can be alleviated, and what can be done to safeguard the workforce’s safety and productivity.

Finding the right temperature

High temperatures can impact concentration levels and cause fatigue, dizziness, fainting or confusion. All these symptoms will impact productivity and cause additional hazards on site so it’s important employers create a more comfortable working environment where their workforce will remain focused and 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 wearing PPE whilst working in direct sunlight will suffer far more than those in air-conditioned offices.

The Chartered Institute of Building Service Engineers has previously recommended that those performing ‘heavy work’ in locations such as building sites should only be expected to do so when the temperature is approximately 13oC.

Maintaining such specific temperatures outside will simply not be achievable, but failure to at least try to mitigate the risks could well create a huge health and safety issue for employers.

What does the law say?

The law doesn’t currently advise a maximum temperature whereby it’s deemed too unsafe for work.

In the past, the Trades Union Congress has attempted to levy a maximum temperature of 30oC, but at present both the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 and the Approved Code of Practice to the Workplace Regulations still state that for workplaces to remain operational, temperatures must be ‘reasonable’ and/or ‘comfortable’.

Protective regulations

Whilst there isn’t a maximum workplace temperature legal, employees’ welfare is still very much regulated.

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, for example, requires employers to protect the well-being, 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. This includes the dangers posed by extreme heat.

When temperatures reach the high twenties or above, employers of operatives working outside, should undertake risk assessments as to their on-site working conditions to make sure they comply with this legislation.

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 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 advises that appropriate PPE has to be suitable for the risks and working environment, and that means warm enough in winter but also cool in the summer.

Working outside

Construction workers are a group particularly vulnerable to changing temperatures. It is therefore vital that precautions are taken on site so that no one overheats or ends up suffering from heatstroke, dehydration, sunburn or skin cancer amongst other conditions, as a result of extreme heat.

Protections that construction companies should consider implementing include:

  • Alter shift patterns to avoid workers operating at the hottest times of day to minimise exposure to the sun. Introduce shorter workdays until conditions become more manageable;
  • Encourage the use of sun protection products;
  • Allow for regular breaks, with shelter from the sun should be provided where possible;
  • Add further water outlets to encourage regular drinking;
  • Consider if clothing and equipment can be adjusted to provide greater protection.

Keeping cool

Most business owners will have plans in place for what happens when there is snowfall or low temperatures, but it’s just as important to have similar protocols in place for when temperatures rise.

Looking after your staff at such times is crucial for productivity, maintaining staff safety and morale. If that means relaxing dress code policies or working hours, then so long as safety is not compromised, a rational approach is what’s required.

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

About the author: 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.