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Working in a Heatwave: An Employer’s Rights and Responsibilities

Working in a Heatwave: An Employer’s Rights and Responsibilities

employment law for hot weather conditions

Last week, the UK experienced its warmest weather of the year, with temperatures in parts of the country reaching upwards of 30°C. While wonderful for those picnicking in a park, or bathing on a beach, such temperatures are less enjoyable for those stuck working in an office, where dress codes often dictate the wearing of suits for men and formal attire for women. Employees who refuse to comply may find themselves being disciplined, provided the correct procedures are followed.

No official temperature ceiling

One potential scenario – in which an employee is fired for refusing to wear a jacket and tie each day, in an office lacking an effective cooling system – could see that member of staff able to bring an unfair dismissal claim against the company. In those circumstances, an employment tribunal would likely find that the sanction imposed was outside the band of reasonable responses open to an employer, equating to unfair dismissal.

There is no maximum workplace temperature in the UK. The Health and Safety Executive says that:

“A meaningful maximum figure cannot be given due to the high temperatures found in, for example, glass works or foundries”, although its guidance defines thermal comfort in the workplace as “An acceptable zone of thermal comfort roughly between 13°C and 30°C”.

Regulation 7 of the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, which lay down particular requirements for most aspects of the working environment, states that: “During working hours, the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be reasonable”, and that if a significant number of employees are complaining about thermal discomfort, the employer should carry out a risk assessment, and act on the results of that assessment.

This may take the form of a Heat Stress Check List for each employee, which records factors such as work rate, working climate, and clothing.

Averting the danger

The TUC says:

“When the workplace gets too hot it is more than just an issue about comfort. If the temperature goes too high then it can become a health and safety issue. If people get too hot, they risk dizziness, fainting, or even heat cramps. In very hot conditions the body’s blood temperature rises. If the blood temperature rises above 39°C, there is a risk of heat stroke or collapse. Delirium or confusion can occur above 41°C”.

Ultimately, the TUC wishes to make it illegal to keep people at work indoors if the temperature is above 30°C. In the meantime, however, it has called for employers to temporarily relax their dress codes, to help staff feel more comfortable during extremely hot and humid weather.

Other steps employers should consider include distributing fans to employees, offering flexible working so that staff can avoid travelling in the rush hour, allowing staff to take regular breaks, and ensuring that outside workers have access to sunscreen. General Secretary Frances O’Grady says: “Obviously shorts and flip flops won’t be the right attire for all workers, but no one should be made to suffer unnecessarily in the heat for the sake of appearances”.

An employer’s responsibilities and fair employment law policies

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