During July’s heatwave, the mercury reached unprecedented heights, with temperatures surpassing 40 degrees Celsius for the first time in the UK. The record heat has had people asking: when is it too hot to work?
Right now, it’s up to employers to assess if it’s too hot at work, and establish ways to cope
Currently, there are no maximum or minimum temperatures for UK workplaces. Still, employers have a legal obligation to provide a ‘reasonable’ workplace temperature as set out in the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992.
Some work environments operate throughout the year at high temperatures – glass works and foundries, for example – but there’s no meaningful figure given to workplaces around what “too hot to work” might be.
The available guidance does state that it’s possible to work safely at high temperatures and that considerations to the radiant temperature, humidity and air velocity become more significant when employers make their risk assessments for such workplaces. However, for many, until now working temperature has not needed to be a substantial consideration.
Overall, it’s up to employers to make a suitable assessment of health and safety risks, including workplace temperature, and take action where necessary as required by the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.
Employers are encouraged to consult with employees or representatives to establish ways to cope with high temperatures that work for everyone.
There’s a proposal to cap workplace temperatures at 30 degrees
By coincidence a motion to formally set maximum workplace temperatures, signed by 51 MPs, was laid before Parliament on 11 July 2022 – just a few days before the heatwave.
The proposal would see workplace temperatures officially capped at 30 degrees, or 27 degrees for strenuous work.
Given the recent heatwave and the likelihood of similar weather events, the measures are expected to garner wider interest; the GMB Union and the TUC have already voiced approval in the name of employee safety and wellbeing.
The TUC would like to take the motion further, indicating that employers should attempt to reduce the temperature once the environment reaches 24 degrees and workers feel uncomfortable.
Their General Secretary, Frances O’Grady, spoke about this applying widely and said: “We all love it when the sun comes out. But working in sweltering conditions in a baking shop or stifling office can be unbearable and dangerous.”
Will the law change?
So could a 30 degree maximum temperature for workplaces become law?
Although we’ve seen rising temperatures and Union-led demand for a shift in priorities, the law doesn’t look likely to change any time soon.
Early day motions proceeding to become law are rare and commentators are doubtful of any changes to the law in the near future.
There’s uncertainty around our leadership and the backlog of proposed employment law reforms that haven’t been addressed, including most notably the Employment Bill that was missing from the Queen’s Speech this year, so we could be waiting some time.
However, the motion and what happened in the following week has kick-started a debate that is likely to rumble on.
In the meantime, how can workplaces beat the heat?
With the Met Office warning that an August heatwave could be just around the corner and Climate Change related issues likely to become more and more common an issue that we all must manage, it isn’t difficult to consider a policy change in the medium term.
Until then we can look to limited government guidance to keep the workplace comfortable during heatwaves. The Health and Safety Executive makes short-term recommendations, including opening windows, providing fans, relaxing formal dress codes, and introducing flexible working hours.
Longer term, summers are only set to get warmer, so it’s time to include thermal risk in any workplace risk assessments and plan what happens when these high temperatures hit again.