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Employer Q & A: Working During Hot Weather

Though the temperature has started to cool, it is almost inevitable that heatwaves will become a permanent feature of life in the UK.  We take a look at how employers can handle rising temperatures in the workplace.

Can workers leave their workplace if it becomes too hot?

It depends. Employees who feel unwell because of the heat may need to take sick leave.  Others may be protected under law if they leave their workplace because they reasonably believe the heat poses a serious and imminent danger which they cannot reasonably be expected to avert. However, proving such a belief is no easy task, particularly if the employer has taken reasonable steps in response to the heat.

What’s the maximum working temperature?

There is no legally set maximum working temperature. However, the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 place a legal obligation on employers to provide a “reasonable” working temperature. In addition, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require that a suitable assessment of the risks to the health and safety of workers is carried out. The temperature of the workplace is one of the potential hazards that should be considered when completing risk assessments.

Employers’ general duty to treat employees with trust and confidence apply throughout the employment relationship.  At times of hot weather and uncomfortable working conditions, this means being considerate to employees – after all, if staff are too hot, they won’t be at their most productive.

What is the likelihood of legislation regulating working temperature?

A number of MPs recently backed the call from some trade unions for a maximum workplace temperature of 30C, or 27C for strenuous work, beyond which employers would have a statutory duty to introduce control measures, such as ventilation or moving staff away from windows and sources of heat.

Whilst a limit on the maximum working temperature is likely to be proposed more often the longer a heatwave goes on, it is unlikely that there will be legislation regulating workplace temperature anytime soon, given the long queue of other employment legislation which is currently waiting to be addressed.

Do employers legally have to provide air conditioning?

No. However, air conditioning is one of several measures employers should consider when trying to ease uncomfortable working conditions. Other options include:

  • Using fans;
  • Providing cool water in the workplace;
  • Modifying dress code requirements if appropriate and safe to do so;
  • Providing additional breaks, particularly for those working in the hottest areas; and
  • Allowing outdoor workers to work in the shade when the sun is at its hottest.

Is it acceptable for workers to wear shorts and flip-flops during warm weather?

Possibly. Each workplace will differ and in some relaxing dress code requirements to permit “dressy” shorts could be appropriate.  However, employers are still entitled to insist on certain standards of appearance – particularly for customer-facing roles and where health and safety obligations dictate that specific shoes and clothing should be worn.

What rights do workers have to be absent during the heatwave?

Sickness rates have been climbing, with a 15% increase in absence due to illness last week. Whilst there will be genuine cases of illness – especially with rising Covid rates – it can be tempting for staff to use Company sick leave to make the most of the weather. In these situations, employers should use their absence management procedures as normal and consider conducting an investigation if there are reasonable grounds to suspect that a period of absence is not genuine.

However, it is worth bearing in mind that extreme heat may exacerbate a worker’s disability. If so they, and in some cases those who are associated with them, could have additional protection under discrimination legislation. These situations can be difficult to navigate and specialist legal advice may be necessary or desirable.

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