UK heatwave | Is a 'max working temperature' a realistic way to keep staff safe?

Is a 'max working temperature' a realistic way to keep staff safe?

With the country facing a potentially lethal heatwave, calls are growing for the introduction of a maximum working temperature law – but is a legal change practical?

Temperatures are set to hit a record breaking 40C this week in some areas of the country – which meteorologists have warned could be deadly – and the GMB union has urged employers to make adjustments, while simultaneously calling for a legal maximum temperature for work to be set at 25C.

Currently there is a legal minimum working temperature, but no legal maximum. GMB also wants further workplace adjustments to be provided to workers, such as:

  • Flexible working and travel arrangements

  • Extra breaks

  • Water access

  • Cooling systems/air conditioning

  • Flexible dress codes

  • Provision of protective clothing

Lynsey Mann, GMB Health and Safety officer, said: “This hot weather is great for being on a sun lounger – but if you’re trying to work through, it’s no joke. “Bosses need to do everything possible to keep workplaces cool, and more importantly, safe. This can be as simple as letting people wear more casual clothing and providing proper hydration.

“High levels of UV exposure also mean that outdoor workers have a much higher risk of developing skin cancer. Simply allowing more breaks and providing sun cream and protective clothing, such as hats with neck covers, can help reduce this risk.

“Ultimately there needs to be a legal maximum working temperature, in the same way we have a legal minimum working temperature. And it is in employer’s interests – workers who are overheating aren’t going to be at their best.”

Would a maximum temperature be effective?

While allowing workers to go home if the heat hits dangerous levels sounds simple on paper, Martin Williams, Head of Employment and Partner at Mayo Wynne Baxter, said the reality it would be more complicated.

“An arbitrary maximum temperature for a working environment may have an immediate appeal but it is not the solution unions may think it is”, said Williams. Working conditions are as variable as working types and there is no ‘one size fits all’.

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“Mitigating the effects of exposure to heat is what is required and this will depend on the individual and the workplace. It is a health and safety matter where assessment is key.”

Williams concluded: “While working from home is a popular clarion call, it is not a suitable fix for all work types. Further, for office workers, there is no guarantee that the home is going to be a cooler place to work than an air-conditioned office.”

What does the law require businesses to do?

Currently, the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 simply state that the temperature of a workplace should be reasonable.

The management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 requires employers to make a suitable assessment of the risks to the health and safety of their employees. Temperature is a potential hazard that employers must consider when doing such assessments. If several employees complain about the heat, the business is legally obliged to carry out a risk assessment.

Additional steps should also be taken in relation to pregnant employees and ensure that specific risk assessments for pregnant employees or those suffering from certain medical conditions or taking medication are carried out.

Lauren Harkin, Employment Partner, at law firm RWK Goodman, explains what businesses should do to ensure their employees stay comfortable wherever they are working.

“Following the Covid pandemic, many employees continue to work from home permanently or use a mix of home and office working”, she said. "This does not, however, mean that employers can forget their health and safety responsibilities during heatwaves.

“Employees do not have the right to stop working if it gets too hot. Somewhat surprisingly, whilst there is a minimum working temperature of 16° for workplaces, there is no maximum temperature. Given that there are industries where it will be necessary to work in higher temperatures, such as bakeries, and metal and glass production, it is difficult to envisage what an appropriate limit for a maximum temperature would be.

“Employers do, however, have a duty of care to provide a safe environment where staff are not at risk of falling ill from the heat. For those with employees that are home working, it is sensible for line managers to check in with staff to ensure that they are well and remind employees to take breaks and stay hydrated.

“For employees that work in a usual workplace, employers should consider relaxing rules around dress code, in particular removing restrictive items of clothing such as ties. Considering a dress-down policy for the days when the temperatures are considerably high is also sensible.

“Employers may also wish to adopt a more flexible pattern, such as earlier starts or later finishes, when it is typically slightly cooler, enabling employees to take rest during the hottest part of the day or avoid busy public transport at peak times.”

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