How employers should look after their staff during a heatwave

Employers are responsible for creating a safe and comfortable working environment for their staff.

As the heatwave rages on, employers have a legal duty to protect the health and safety of their staff, which means they need to keep the office at a ‘reasonable temperature’, according to the law firm Whitehead Monckton.

Antonio Fletcher, the associate director and head of employment at Whitehead Monckton, explains that while there is actually no specific maximum temperature for the workplace, employers have a legal duty to protect their staff as stated in the Workplace Regulations 1992.

And a failure to comply with this could result in legal action.

‘Employers are legally required to make sure the workplace remains at a reasonable temperature, and they should take this matter seriously,’ says Antonio.

‘What’s reasonable will vary from one place to another, but employers certainly have a duty to make sure their staff are kept well.

‘When people are too warm, they are likely to be less productive, so keeping things cool also helps with staff morale.’

Recommendations

Hannah Copeland, a HR business partner at employment law and HR support firm WorkNest, explains that people typically work best when temperatures are between 16°C and 24°C – depending on the type of work being done. 

Strenuous work is better performed at slightly lower temperatures than office work.

She explains: ‘The fact is, nobody likes to work in the sweltering heat, and many workplaces simply aren’t built for it.

‘TUC (trades union congress) guidance states that the maximum temperature employees should work in is 30°C or 27°C for manual workers.

‘If the work environment exceeds these temperatures, the TUC says that staff should be allowed to go home.’

There are very real health and safety risks of working in a sweltering environment, including dizziness, fainting or even heat cramps, says Hannah.

In the office

‘As an employer, there are some sensible controls that should be implemented to protect those working outdoors in high summer temperatures,’ Hannah explains. 

‘These include:

  • ‘Rescheduling work to cooler times of the day.
  • ‘Providing more frequent rest breaks and introducing shading to rest areas.
  • ‘Introducing shading in areas where individuals are working.
  • ‘Providing free access to cool drinking water.
  • ‘Reiterating the importance of wearing sunblock and/or a hat.
  • ‘Making sure protective clothing is light and suitable.
  • ‘Encouraging the removal of PPE when resting to help facilitate heat loss.
  • ‘Educating workers about recognising the early symptoms of heat stress.’

Hannah also suggests that staff should check in with their manager or HR if they are unsure of dress code rules on a hot day. 

She continues: ‘Most companies have a dress code policy, but if you don’t, then employers can benefit from sending some written communication out which provides guidance for employees.

‘Employees will always be required to maintain the standard of dress that is appropriate for their workplace.’

While going into work in a bikini or speedos clearly isn’t a professional option, Hannah suggests that employers could adopt a new dress code for the heat – as well as stating which items are in line with policy.

Ultimately, Antionio says that employers should ‘just use common sense.’

‘Bosses are legally required to provide drinking water but might also want to consider a more relaxed dress code to allow for cooler clothing,’ he adds.

‘They should look out for those most vulnerable to warm weather, such as people with certain health conditions or pregnant women.

‘They should also be aware of anyone fasting.’

If you are finding your office too hot to work, it’s recommended you talk to your manager or employee representative – enough people complaining means the HR department has to look into it, explains Antonio.

He adds that if you still have no luck, you can also write to your local environmental health officer or the Health and Safety Executive.

Working from home

‘Many people will be working from home over the next few days to avoid commuting in the extremely warm weather,’ says Hannah Copeland.

‘However, despite its name, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 also applies to homeworkers, so employers have the same obligations to keep staff safe even when they are working from home.’

While it is harder for employers to control the working environment when staff are at home, Hannah says that companies should provide examples to employees of what can be done to ensure a ‘reasonably comfortable temperature’ at home; including: 

  • Setting up workspaces away from places subject to radiant heat.
  • Using fans, if available.
  • Keeping windows and doors shut and curtains closed during the day. If the temperature outside drops, open the windows to allow fresh air into the home.
  • Shading windows.
  • Keep internal doors closed to avoid the air mixing and feeling ‘thick’ and humid.
  • Rescheduling work to cooler times of the day.
  • Providing more frequent rest breaks. 
  • Educating workers about recognising the early symptoms of heat stress.
  • Have air cooling plants available. These plants, as part of the Photosynthesis process, will release moisture back into the air through their leaves and foliage.  

‘As well as considering environmental measures, it’s also important that employees are advised to keep very well hydrated, wear suitable clothing which keeps the body cool and consider taking a rest if they are feeling too hot,’ she says. 

‘Spotting signs of heat exhaustion is also important, so make sure to watch out for those and tell them what to do if they suspect they may be suffering from over-heat.’

‘This could be done via Email, a Teams chat or via team meetings or line managers. You should also consider what hours or when people are working and consider adjusting this to make staff more comfortable.’

Some common signs of heat exhaustion are:

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Feeling extremely thirsty

Hannah also notes that employers should be particularly wary of employees with existing health problems as ‘heat may aggravate medical conditions and illnesses such as high blood pressure or heart disease due to increased load on the heart, and workers over 65, who are at greater risk of heat stress.’

As well as risks to employees’ health and safety (which should be an employer’s primary concern), Hannah adds that hot workplaces are also detrimental to productivity.

Law firm Whitehead Monckton adds that employees should make their employers aware of any issues they are experiencing or anticipate and, where possible, make suggestions that may help alleviate these concerns. 

‘This could include borrowing equipment such as fans or could include requesting to work from any nearby air-conditioned premises the employer may have use of,’ they suggest.

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