As extreme heat hits the UK, many people returning to offices last week have been left feeling hot under the collar.
The hottest day of the year was recorded in the UK on 17 July, with the mercury hitting a sweltering 32.2C at Heathrow Airport in London.
Tina Chander, Head of Employment Law with leading Midlands law firm Wright Hassall, looks at whether it’s ever too hot to work.
What constitutes a ‘reasonable’ temperature?
Maintaining a comfortable working environment that allows staff to remain focused throughout the day is important not only to maintain productivity but as importantly for general health and wellbeing.
HSE, an independent regulator that aims to prevent work-related death, injury and ill-health, says workplace temperatures should be ‘reasonable’ and it is generally accepted that most people operate best between 16 and 24 degrees, although this can vary depending on the nature of the work.
Of course, those who work outdoors and those required to wear heavy protective gear are at more risk of overheating than those working in an air-conditioned office for eight hours a day.
The Chartered Institute of Building Service Engineers has recommended that factory workers performing heavy tasks, such a steelworkers, should operate at 13C, whereas those in offices work best at 20C.
No maximum temperature in law
There is no maximum temperature laid down in legislation at which it is considered unsafe for workers to continue working.
Although, workers’ representatives, such as the Trades Union Congress, suggest a maximum temperature of 30C (27C for those completing strenuous work), the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 states that temperatures inside the workplace must simply be ‘reasonable’.
This is bolstered by Approved Code of Practice to the Workplace Regulations, which says ‘all reasonable steps should be taken to achieve a comfortable temperature’.
However, ACAS gives some helpful advice to employers trying to achieve a ‘reasonable temperature’, covering a range of factors including protective clothing, physical activity, ventilation, hydration and humidity.
Regulations govern worker comfort
In the absence of a legal maximum, the Code of Practice regulations are in place to protect workers from the effects of working in high temperatures, giving employers essential guidance on how they can mitigate the worse effects of the heat to keep their staff as comfortable as possible.
For instance, employers must provide enough thermometers so staff can keep track of indoor temperatures. Other guidance recommends the use of blinds to block out sunlight, good ventilation (to include the provision of fans, as well as ensuring air conditioning units are working properly), relaxation of dress codes and the provision of plenty of water for staff. Employers can also consider staggering work start times.
While Workplace Regulations only apply to indoor offices, those working outside are covered by other regulations. The Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 specify that personal protective equipment (PPE) must be designed appropriately for the task in hand and for the working environment to prevent staff overheating.
Other regulations such as the Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 take into account the risks to employees of working in hot and humid conditions, while the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 relates specifically to the increased risks faced by pregnant women.
Outside working poses particular dangers
Employers have a duty of care to all their employees and must be aware of the additional risks posed by extreme heat to those working outdoors.
Workers working in direct sunlight without proper protection such as sun cream and hats run the risk of developing heatstroke or, worse, diseases such as skin cancer.
Employers are advised to reconfigure shift patterns where they can so that workers can avoid the hottest part of the day as well as ensuring they have access to enough water and have enough shade for breaks.
We should prepare for more heatwaves
We are all conscious that weather patterns are changing; although extended periods of high temperatures in the UK are still relatively uncommon, it is worth reviewing and potentially reconfiguring work practices to cope with extreme heat.
The chances are these heatwaves will become more frequent and it is in everyone’s interest to ensure that workers are kept as comfortable as possible so that they remain focused, productive and, most importantly, healthy and well.