Too Hot to Work? – An Employer’s Guide
With temperatures set to soar well over 30°C in parts of the UK this week and beyond, whether employees work from home, in an office or another workplace, rumours often circulate about employees’ rights in relation to the temperatures in which they can legally work.
Following the covid pandemic, many employees continue to work from home permanently, or use a mix of home and office working. This does not, however, mean that employers can forget their health and safety responsibilities during heatwaves. For businesses that have employees in a workplace, companies usually rely on air-conditioning to regulate temperatures. However, for employees that are homeworking (or in a workplace that doesn’t have the benefit of air-conditioning), they may have to rely on opening windows and using fans, which can cause potential disturbance in terms of noise.
So, do employees have a right to stop working if a maximum temperature is exceeded?
No, employees do not have a right to stop working. Somewhat surprisingly, whilst there is a minimum working temperature of 16° for workplaces, there is no maximum temperature. Given that there are industries where it will be necessary to work in higher temperatures, such as bakeries, and metal and glass production, it is difficult to envisage what an appropriate limit for a maximum temperature would be.
But whilst employers do not have a legal obligation to ensure a maximum working temperature is not exceeded, they do have a duty of care to provide a safe environment where staff are not at risk of falling ill from the heat. For those with employees that are homeworking, it is sensible for line managers to check-in with staff to ensure that they are well and remind employees to take breaks and stay hydrated.
For employees that work in a usual workplace, employers should consider relaxing rules around dress code, in particular removing restrictive items of clothing such as ties. Considering a dress-down policy for the days when the temperatures are considerably high is also sensible.
Another consideration may be working a more flexible pattern, such as earlier starts or later finishes, when it is typically slightly cooler, enabling employees to take rest during the hottest part of the day or avoid busy public transport at peak times.
And what about those with medical conditions?
In the worst of circumstances, if employees do become unwell from the heat, especially for those that may be suffering from health conditions that are more susceptible to be exacerbated by heat, employers could find themselves involved in personal injury disputes. There are disabilities, such as arthritis and the lung condition COPD, which makes working in high temperatures particularly difficult. As these conditions are disabilities under the Equality Act 2010, employers must consider reasonable adjustments to enable employees to do their jobs safely.
What does the law require businesses to do?
The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 simply states that the temperature of a workplace should be reasonable.
The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 requires employers to make a suitable assessment of the risks to the health and safety of their employees. Temperature is a potential hazard that employers must consider when doing such assessments. If several employees complain about the heat, the business is legally obliged to carry our risk assessment.
Additional steps should also be taken in relation to pregnant employees and ensure that specific risk assessments for pregnant employees or those suffering from certain medical conditions or taking medication are carried out.
From a practical perspective it is also difficult for employees to be productive if they are uncomfortable due to the heat. Be mindful that a long cold drink in the garden will often seem more attractive than the stifling home office! Where possible, accommodate the reasonable requests of your employees. The school holidays are not that long away, so the inevitable weather change is no doubt just around the corner!