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Too hot to handle? What employers need to know about the heatwave

04 July 2018

There’s nothing Brits like more than talking about the weather and this year we’ve had a lot to discuss. Just a few months ago, the country was shivering in sub-zero temperatures, brought from Siberia by the “beast from the east”. Now that seems like a distant memory and we’re enjoying one of the hottest summers on record.

But although the sun might be more welcome than the storms, it can still cause headaches for employers. What should they keep in mind when the mercury starts rising?

Working indoors

The unaccustomed sunshine means that some workplaces are becoming too hot. While health and safety laws do not specify maximum and minimum temperatures, they do stipulate that the temperature inside buildings should be reasonable during working hours.

There is no legal definition of “reasonable”, and it will depend to some extent on what workers are doing, with more active tasks requiring a cooler temperature. The code of practice issued by the Health and Safety Executive (“HSE”) suggests a minimum of 16°C (or 13°C if the work is very physical) but no maximum is given. For most kinds of work, however, the acceptable range lies between 16°C and 24°C.

The HSE’s guidance advises employers to focus on their workers’ “thermal comfort” when regulating workplace temperatures. This is essentially peoples’ perception of temperature and the effect it has on them. Those experiencing thermal discomfort will, according to the HSE, make more mistakes and operate more dangerously in the workplace.

The HSE sets out six factors that determine the level of thermal comfort experienced by workers:

  • four “environmental” factors - air temperature, radiant temperature (i.e. the presence of hot objects), air velocity and humidity; and
  • two “personal” factors - clothing insulation and “metabolic heat” (i.e. the heat we naturally produce ourselves).

A thermal comfort checklist published by the HSE can help employers to identify issues. Although not intended as a proper risk assessment, more than two ticks indicate there might be a problem with heat in the workplace.

In hot weather, employers should consider steps they can take to achieve a more comfortable environment, such as using air conditioning units or fans, shading windows and increasing ventilation. Employers could also consider relaxing any dress codes so that staff can stay cooler.

Working outdoors

For those who work outdoors - or in an environment without air conditioning - work can become particularly exhausting when the weather heats up. Heat and dehydration detrimentally affect decision-making and physical ability, while heavy sweating can make the working experience uncomfortable and unpleasant.

If possible, work should be rescheduled to cooler times of the day or longer and more frequent breaks should be allowed, with somewhere shady to rest. To keep staff happier and more productive, they should have access to sufficient water to remain fully hydrated throughout the working day.

Employers should ensure that workers have appropriate clothing to protect them from the sun (e.g. hats and long-sleeved tops). And remember that skin cancer is the fifth most common cancer in the UK - employers should make sure all staff working outside have access to sunscreen with a high protection factor. 

The commute

It seems that in the UK, whatever the weather, there will be problems with the railways. Passengers suffer from the effects of autumnal leaves on the line, winter ice and expanding train tracks in the summer.

When the temperature exceeds about 27°C, it can cause steel railway tracks to swell and buckle. Speed restrictions become necessary to minimise stress to the line and give drivers a chance to spot warped tracks and stop in time. In addition, with roads literally melting in the heat, drivers can similarly face delays.

This inevitably means that absences and lateness become more common during a heatwave. Unless strict punctuality is absolutely necessary, employers should consider taking a more relaxed approach to delays.

If workers completely fail to turn up for work for a reason outside their control such as heat-related travel chaos, there may in some circumstances be an argument that they are not legally entitled to be paid. Employers should, however, be very cautious about deciding to dock workers’ pay. Not only is this likely to have a negative impact on employees’ morale, but it could also give rise to adverse publicity.

Guidance from Acas advocates a flexible approach in such situations, stating: "The handling of bad weather and travel disruption can be an opportunity for an employer to enhance staff morale and productivity by the way it is handled."

Walking on sunshine

Sunny days make most people feel more cheerful, and fine weather may provide an opportunity for some impromptu and low-cost staff bonding. Why not blow a bit of your social budget on some organised fun, such as a lunchtime picnic or post-work softball game?

After all, we’ll be back to complaining about the rain soon enough…

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