The Met Office issued the UK’s first ever red warning for exceptional heat this week, with temperatures reaching record highs in some parts of the country on Monday and Tuesday.
Scientists warn that global temperatures are increasing as a result of global warming and that hot summers are likely here to stay. Whilst some may take the time to enjoy the sunshine, perhaps relaxing in their garden or down at the beach, many employees will be required to attend work despite the heat. Workers faced with sweltering temperatures are likely asking the question: is it too hot to work?
What does the current law say?
There is currently no law which places a maximum limit on temperatures in a workplace. Employers do however owe a common law duty of care to their employees and must take all reasonable practical steps to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of their employees. This includes providing a safe premises and safe working practices for employees. The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 places an obligation on employers to provide a “reasonable” working temperature in the office, but does not go as far as defining what temperature would be considered “reasonable” or requiring employers to provide air conditioning or ventilation to regulate office temperatures. Equally, where employees are required to work outdoors, employers will have little control over outside temperatures.
Duty of care – possible measures
In order to ensure the health and safety of staff, employers may consider allowing employees, particularly those who are non-customer facing, to wear casual clothes so that they are not required to wear suits or dark, heavy uniforms which attract heat. The Trade Union Congress (TUC) has urged firms to relax dress codes during hot weather and has suggested that no employee should be made to suffer unnecessarily for the sake of maintaining appearances. The TUC has also argued that outdoor work should be undertaken early in the morning or late in the afternoon, to avoid working during the hottest part of the day. Outdoor workers are susceptible to dehydration, sunstroke and high levels of UV exposure, so varying working hours where possible will ensure employee safety and maintain productivity. Other possible safety measures could include supplying staff with cool drinking water, protective clothing, such as hats and neck covers, and sun cream.
This week there have been calls for greater legislative protection for employees, with the GMB union calling for a maximum legal limit on temperatures in a workplace and suggesting that workers should not have to contend with temperatures any higher than 25°C. A number of MPs have also recently backed a campaign for a maximum legal temperature limit in workplaces, with 38 MPs supporting an early day motion for legislation to introduce a legal limit of 30°C, or 27°C for workers undertaking strenuous and physical work. The campaign also calls for employers to introduce effective control measures, including ventilation or moving employees away from windows or heat sources.
High workplace temperatures can be a hazard and a threat to the health and safety of employees, potentially causing a range of health issues including dehydration, muscle cramps, rashes, fainting and in extreme cases, loss of consciousness. Whilst some employers are able to regulate temperatures through the use of air conditioning and ventilation, there are some industries, particularly those where employees are required to work outside, where temperature regulation is not possible. With global temperatures rising and hot summers set to stay, there is increasing pressure for greater regulation. Until such time when new legislation is introduced, employers must continue to consider their common law duty of care and exercise reasonable judgement to protect the health and safety of their employees. This will involve undertaking regular risk assessments, maintaining a record of all work-related injuries and accidents, having a comprehensive health and safety policy, taking steps to reduce the risk of injury and ensuring the workplace is safe and providing appropriate equipment to employees.
For more information, please contact a member of the Employment Team.