With a series of heatwaves forecast - and some areas sweltering in temperatures of up to 91F (33C) - it is vital that employers take measures to prevent staff becoming dehydrated and ill.
Although there is currently no statutory minimum or maximum workplace temperature, there is a recommended minimum. Guidelines from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) set a minimum of 16C – but it can be as low as 13C if the work is particularly strenuous.
Employers are responsible for providing a safe environment for their people at all times – and in all weathers. They are legally required to provide staff with a ‘reasonable’ temperature at work along with access to thermometers so they can check the air temperature.
Workplace regulations say companies should make a “suitable assessment” of the health and safety risks posed to staff in their working environment and take action “where necessary and where reasonably practicable".
The “necessary” action will vary according to the nature of the business and will include making decisions which could include sending people home if safe working cannot be arranged.
Employers’ responsibilities extend to ensuring access to suitable and sufficient washing facilities which, depending upon the type of work can include showers. Providing breaks and drinking water which is easily accessible is also compulsory – as is proper ventilation, although this does not extend to air conditioning. Airflow is an important aid to keeping cool.
If employees’ duties include working outdoors, companies should take steps to prevent dehydration and sunstroke, such as ensuring there is shade, that workers wear hats and that plenty of water is available.
Although a standard temperature for when it becomes too hot to work has not been set, probably because workplaces such as foundries can get extremely hot, employers are expected to take the initiative to prevent a backlash from staff which can include leaving an unsafe place of work or even claiming constructive dismissal.
In a bid to address the lack of a statutory maximum temperature and ensure employers take effective measures regarding their staff in uncomfortably high temperatures; MPs Ian Mearns and Mark Durkan are seeking to introduce a maximum office temperature of 30C and 27C for more strenuous environments. The TUC has also been campaigning for a legal maximum temperature for many years.
In the meantime, employers are urged to ensure their staff are not subject to unbearable working conditions. I recall a case where an employer was successfully sued for failing to keep the premises warm enough. The same scenario could happen if the workplace were unbearably hot. If in doubt, take expert advice to avoid negative repercussions. Offering ice creams is not obligatory – but would go a long way towards engendering goodwill.
Advising on all aspects of employment law, Barry Warne heads the employment team at Keebles (formerly hlw Keeble Hawson). Specialising in TUPE, he has considerable experience in dealing with high value executive severance negotiations and is an experienced employment tribunal advocate and an accredited mediator with a 90%.