Jane Crosby from law firm Hart Brown discusses what rights employees have, and what duties of care an employer has, to ensure the health of everyone in the workplace as temperatures soar.
For those heading to work, rather than the seaside, they may be asking employers ‘how hot is too hot?’ in their working environment, or wondering whether delayed or cancelled trains mean they can take the day off.
The benchmark often given is that people work best in temperatures between 16°C and 24°C, but in the UK there is no fixed minimum or maximum temperature requirement for the workplace. Instead, the Health & Safety Executive say that it should be ‘reasonable’. Defining whether a temperature is reasonable will depend on the type of work and workplace. For example, a food cold store or a bakery will each take temperatures to extremes that wouldn’t be reasonable in other environments, and may require protective clothing.
For any company that doesn’t have a clear policy on extreme weather, which covers everything from summer heatwaves to winter snowstorms, this hot spell is another prompt to undertake risk management in this area. It is important for employers to have a clear policy that everyone knows about and then being consistent in how it is applied. It doesn’t necessarily have to be exactly the same for everyone, as some groups may need special treatment, but it needs to be fair
Getting to work
Generally, hot weather shouldn’t be a reason to avoid travelling to work, but public transport does occasionally grind to a halt in extreme temperatures and it’s worth having a policy in place so that staff know what they should do if cancellations are expected or delays happen. As with working conditions, for some groups of workers it may be appropriate to make special provisions.
Special consideration should be made for anyone who may experience greater problems in extreme temperatures because of medical or other conditions. If someone is pregnant or on medication, they may need more frequent rest breaks and be given a personal solution, such as a portable fan or air cooling unit, if there is no fixed air conditioning. Similarly, those working under direct sunlight, or in specialist protective clothing, may need special consideration, as working outside without adequate protection may increase the risk of skin cancer and working in heavy protective clothing could increase the risk of dehydration.
It’s important to avoid dehydration in hot weather, so it’s a good idea to make sure there is easy access to drinking water and encourage staff to swap their morning coffee for a cool drink. The average recommended daily water intake of 2 litres for women and 2.5 litres for men should be increased during heatwaves. It’s also worth reminding everyone to avoid heavy meals and to stay out of the midday sun, both of which can lead to health issues, such as plummeting blood pressure or sun stroke.
And finally, it’s worth making sure that managers watch out for tempers that rise together with the temperature. The connection between hotter than average weather and higher levels of aggression is generally acknowledged, even if the reason why it happens is still up for debate, with physiological and psychological reasons in the mix. At the other extreme, high temperatures can mean a loss of concentration and increased tiredness, making workers more likely to put themselves or others at risk.
For companies with a strict dress policy, it may be worth considering offering a dress-down option during hot weather. It doesn’t have to mean you end up with a beach code, but could make a major difference to comfort levels for staff, which will have a direct impact on the dynamics in the workplace.
The Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers recommends the following temperatures for different working areas:
• Heavy work in factories: 13°C
• Light work in factories: 16°C
• Hospital wards and shops: 18°C
• Offices and dining rooms: 20°C