Zee Hussain: Employee complaints during a heatwave – and how to deal with them

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Workplace temperatures

“I’m working in a building that’s too hot.”

Despite the difficulties associated with hot working environments, there is no legal maximum safe working temperature. The only requirement is that temperatures in buildings should be ‘reasonable’; what constitutes reasonable depends on the type of work activity and the environmental conditions of the specific workplace.

“My working conditions are not within the recommended limits.”

The minimum safe working temperatures recommended by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) are 13°C for manual workers and 16°C for sedentary workers. The HSE has also recommended maximum safe working temperatures, these are 27°C, and 30°C.

Productivity and concentration

“This heat is making me ill.”

Aside from the discomfort, lethargy and general unpleasantness that comes from working in hot conditions, there are a number of health risks for employees, particularly manual workers. Fainting, dizziness, throat infections and asthma are among the most common complaints reported.

“I can’t work in this heat, it’s too hard to concentrate.”

Staff productivity and concentration can be affected and employers who provide cool and comfortable workplaces are likely get more out of staff, than those who neglect their workforce in uncomfortable temperatures. For some employers, controlling workplace temperatures can be difficult, particularly if employees are required to work outside or in environments where there are limited controls.

“We have no way of cooling down, it’s making work very unpleasant.”

For those working indoors in hot temperatures, unless a building has air-cooling systems, working conditions can quickly become muggy causing discomfort. When heatwaves hit, employers should ensure there is suitable ventilation, open windows and make fans or portable cooling available where possible, as well as providing access to cold drinking water.

Dress codes

“Nothing changes, even in this heat – it’s like they don’t care what happens to us.”

Measures like allowing sensible dress code and ensuring employees take regular breaks for drinks will show a responsive, caring employer. Some employers may go further and buy employees ice creams or cold treats, which is a nice touch and can have a positive impact on staff working in tough conditions. Dress code can be a contentious issue in the workplace at the best of times, not to mention when the weather begins to play a part.

“My friends in other offices are wearing casual clothes because of the weather. Why can’t we?”

In hot temperatures, or generally if employees raise an objection to dress code, an employer must consider this. It can be a good idea to allow workers to wear casual clothes as temperatures soar, rather than stick to formal dress codes. However, the practicalities of accommodating this will differ from business to business and across industry sectors; for some employers the importance of a dress code is such that it cannot be relaxed in any way and for some it will be a condition of employment. We see visible examples of the importance dress code plays on a daily basis in customer-facing roles including retail environments or where employees are promoting a company brand.

“We are still forced to wear suits even in this scorching weather – why?”

Employers are allowed to tell their workers to dress in a particular way in the workplace, regardless of the temperature, and can even require men and women to dress differently and make the dress code a condition of employment. However, there must be a justification and employers will find it much easier to justify a dress code if it is linked to a business reason. It is advisable to have a specific policy in place, which is clearly communicated, so all employees understand the requirements and boundaries.

“I just want to be cool and comfortable in this weather, why can’t I wear shorts?”

In the emergency services like hospitals, the police and fire authorities the uniform is clearly of paramount importance. It can also be of equal importance to employers in corporate settings such as professional services where image and identity play an important role with clients. Therefore, vest tops and shorts may not be suitable attire for all staff where ties and suits are deemed a necessity.

“What can we wear to make the heat more bearable, what are the rules? We don’t know.”

It makes sense to be clear with employees and instruct them from the start of their job on the business requirements around dress code. It is also worth looking at whether this should be included the employee’s contract and/or the company handbook.

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