The “Great British Summer” is not renowned for its hot temperatures. However, according to provisional data from the Met Office, we have just had the third warmest June since 1910 and this warm spell looks set to continue. Having battled the Tube on another muggy morning in London, I was relieved to step inside the office and feel the cool breath of the air conditioning (which can be so effective in localised areas that I spot a colleague wearing a winter jumper…). So, what are employers’ obligations during hot weather?
1. There is no maximum workplace temperature
Perhaps surprisingly, the law does not stipulate a maximum temperature above which an employee may refuse to work, and employers are not obliged to provide air conditioning. The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 only place a legal obligation on employers to provide a "reasonable" temperature in all indoor workplaces.
2. What is a “reasonable” temperature?
The Health and Safety Executive suggests that workplace temperature should normally be at least 16 C (or 13 C if the work involves rigorous physical effort), although this is not a strict legal requirement. However, the HSE says that a meaningful maximum figure cannot be provided. HSE’s advice is that a reasonable temperature is fact-specific: “A reasonable temperature for a workplace depends on work activity and the environmental conditions of the workplace.” For example, what is reasonable will differ for someone doing manual work compared to someone with a desk-job, or for someone in an office compared to a kitchen.
3. What other obligations do employers have?
Employers must provide their staff with suitable drinking water, which is especially important during hot weather. Employers must also ensure that every enclosed workplace is ventilated by a sufficient quantity of fresh or purified air.
Meanwhile, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to make a suitable assessment of the risks to the health and safety of their employees and to take action where necessary and reasonably practicable. Employers might consider undertaking a risk assessment and consulting with employees to help determine a reasonable workplace temperature in their particular circumstances.
4. Consider vulnerable workers
ACAS recommends that employers are particularly mindful of workers who are young, older, pregnant or on medication, who may be especially affected by the hot weather, and consider giving them more frequent rest breaks, provide fans or portable air cooling units.
ACAS also notes that when Ramadan falls during hot weather (as it did this year from May to June) it can be particularly challenging as the days are longer. ACAS suggests that employers may help by holding meetings in the mornings when energy levels are higher, or by considering a temporary change in working hours.
5. Address staff complaints
According to the HSE, by managing “thermal comfort” employers are likely to improve morale and productivity as well as improving health and safety. For example, in a hot workplace, an employee’s ability to concentrate on a given task may start to drop off, which increases the risk of errors occurring.
Thermal comfort is not measured by room temperature, but by the number of employees complaining of thermal discomfort. It is difficult to please everyone; there will always be some members of staff who are too hot or too cold. Rather than ignoring staff complaints, steps can be taken to address these before they result in formal grievances. You can help ensure thermal comfort in warm conditions by:
- providing air conditioning or fans;
- ensuring that windows can be opened;
- shading employees from direct sunlight with blinds;
- relaxing any formal dress code (while employers are under no obligation to relax their dress code during hot weather, some may allow workers to wear more casual clothes);
- allowing sufficient breaks to enable employees to get cold drinks or cool down; or
- providing additional facilities, such as cold-water dispensers (water is preferable to caffeine or carbonated drinks).
For more information, hints and tips, visit the HSE website.