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Is it too hot to work? What are my rights in the heatwave?

Mark Dorman
Many workers would gladly swap the office chair for a deckchair… (Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Phew – what a scorcher!

As most of Britain bakes in heatwave temperatures in excess of 30C, calls are growing for employers to loosen up.

Union leaders say firms that have a strict dress code should think about relaxing the rules.

That means offices where suits, shirts and ties are the norm should think about allowing employees to dress down – maybe keeping a shirt and tie handy if they are hosting a meeting or visiting a client.

TUC’s general secretary Frances O’Grady, said: “While many of us will welcome the sunshine and warm temperatures this week, working in sweltering conditions can be unbearable and dangerous.

“Employers can give their staff a break by relaxing dress code rules temporarily and ensuring staff doing outside work are protected.

“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.”

Employers should thing of providing more breaks to workers during a heatwave (Jonathan Brady/PA Wire)

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Where does the law stand?
The TUC has again called for a change in the law to let workers go home if the temperature reaches 30C or 27C for people carrying out physical work. At present, there is no upper (or lower) temperature limit at which workers have a right to leave work.

It also wants to introduce a maximum indoor temperature, with employers obliged to adopt cooling measures when a workplace temperature reaches 24C.

The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 lay down particular requirements for most aspects of the working environment.

Regulation 7 deals specifically with the temperature in indoor workplaces and states that: “During working hours, the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be reasonable.”

Clearly, “reasonable” covers a wide range of temperatures in an even wider range of workplace settings.

A reasonable temperature in an air-conditioned office would differ markedly from a foundry and again from a fast food burger restaurant.

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The law does say that if “a significant number of employees are complaining about thermal discomfort” then it’s the employer’s responsibility to carry out a risk assessment, and act on its results.

The Health and Safety Executive says employers should base their assessment on the ‘thermal comfort’ of workers – they say thermal comfort “describes a person’s state of mind in terms of whether they feel too hot or too cold”.

Ice cream treats for workers can not only cool them down but boost morale (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

So, can I walk out of work if I think it’s too hot?

Well, yes and no. There is no official ‘maximum’ office temperature as set by law. However, there is a duty of care on employers, so if enough people complain about the heat, they have to do something about it.

That can mean installing fans, upgrading the air-con, offering cold water to drink, relaxing dress codes, more flexible working, more breaks etc.

“If a significant number of employees are complaining about thermal discomfort, your employer should carry out a risk assessment, and act on the results of that assessment,” the HSE explains.

What about more vulnerable workers?

If you’re a more vulnerable employee – for example have a thyroid imbalance or are undergoing the menopause, or need to wear protective equipment at work so can’t take off layers – that also has to be taken into account.

The TUC also highlights the fact that hot working conditions can often be more than just about being uncomfortable.

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“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,” it says.

“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.”

So, if you’re uncomfortable, tell your boss. If enough people do then they have to act.

What can/should bosses do?

The HSE recommends bosses…

  • provide fans, eg desk, pedestal or ceiling-mounted fans
  • ensure that windows can be opened
  • shade employees from direct sunlight with blinds or by using reflective film on windows to reduce the heating effects of the sun
  • sit workstations away from direct sunlight
  • relax formal dress code
  • allow sufficient breaks to enable employees to get cold drinks or cool down
  • provide additional facilities, eg cold water dispensers
  • introduce formal systems of work to limit exposure, eg flexible working patterns, job rotation, workstation rotation etc
  • place insulating materials around hot plant and pipes
  • provide air-cooling or air-conditioning plant