From reports of schools cancelling sports’ days, builders turning up to work in skirts and dresses because they are not allowed to wear shorts and concerns about railway tracks buckling, the current heatwave is headline news for all sorts of reasons.
The Met Office has now issued a yellow health warning for heatwave conditions for the next few days and this means that there is an 80% chance of temperatures which could be a risk to health.
When we are at home, we can decide how much or how little we do in the hot weather. That’s not the case when we are at work. Although it’s not often that the UK experiences a heatwave, employers need to be aware of their obligations to keep staff comfortable when working in hot conditions to ensure that they don’t suffer from heat stress. This condition occurs when the body is unable to regulate its own temperature and is caused by hot conditions combined with work activity, humidity and inappropriate clothing. Symptoms include a loss of concentration, muscle cramps, heat rashes, fainting, exhaustion and possible heat stroke. It of course goes without saying that heat stress can have an extremely negative impact on employee welfare, performance and productivity but there are legal consequences too for failing to keep staff at a reasonable temperature.
Under regulation 7 of the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, employers have a legal obligation to ensure that “During working hours, the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be reasonable”. Interestingly, the law doesn’t state a maximum temperature because what is reasonable depends on the type of work being done and the nature of the workplace. What’s reasonable in a restaurant kitchen, bakery or steelworks will be different to what’s reasonable in an office.
In establishing whether or not there is a reasonable workplace temperature, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has extensive guidance including a “thermal comfort risk assessment” and a “heat stress checklist”. If a problem is identified in either area, it should be addressed as part of the employer’s risk assessment.
Regarding the practical steps employers can take, if there is air conditioning in the building, make sure it is switched on, blinds/curtains should be used to block out the sunlight and plenty of drinking water should be made available. Consider whether work processes could be altered temporarily, together with longer breaks, increased use of fans and improvements to clothing and equipment. Don’t forget that these steps may all need to be enhanced for vulnerable workers such as pregnant women.
Many employers have uniforms to present a particular corporate image or dress codes to set out what is appropriate for staff to wear to work. They may decide to relax their uniform policy or dress code during the very hot weather to allow more casual clothing. There will be some instances however when a dress code is in place for health and safety reasons, for example, staff are required to wear personal protective equipment (PPE). This can include helmets, goggles, gloves and high visibility clothing. PPE can cause heat stress and the HSE advises employers to consider measures such as permitting work to occur at a slower rate, scheduling work to cooler times of the day and allowing longer recovery times.
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