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What does the law say about working during a heatwave?
With heatwaves becoming more frequent and more extreme, employees and employers alike have been wondering what rules are in place to protect workers from the consequences of extremes in temperature.
There is no law for maximum working temperature. There is, however, a law for the minimum temperature: 16°C (or 13°C if the work involves lots of physical effort).
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) – the public body tasked with regulating health and safety – justifies this by saying that high temperatures in many indoor workplaces are caused by work activity and not things like heatwaves. For example, a busy restaurant kitchen is likely to be hot even in the winter months.
However, this doesn’t mean that employers can let a heatwave come and go without careful consideration of the risks it may cause to the health and safety of their workers. Employers are required to protect employees, and others, from harm. The minimum they must do is identify hazards, determine the risk, and take action to eliminate hazards and control risks.
While it would be difficult to eliminate the hazards posed by a heatwave, controls could include providing fans, installing air-conditioning, moving workstations away from direct sunlight, and relaxing dress codes.
Every employer has a duty to take reasonable care of the health and safety of its employees. This is implied into every contract of employment.
Any health and safety complaints made by an employee may need to be treated as a grievance, and the employee who complains may be protected if their complaint amounts to a protected disclosure (whistleblowing).
Ultimately, if the employer does not take any steps to control the workplace risks posed by heatwaves, an employee could resign and claim in the employment tribunal that they have been constructively unfairly dismissed.
Aside from this, it makes commercial sense to ensure that employees are able to cope with heatwaves at work. Being uncomfortably warm affects concentration, mood, and productivity. Even small steps such as relaxing a dress code or providing desk fans can help ensure that productivity and morale stay high during the summer months.
If you have any questions about health and safety at work, please get in touch with a member of our employment team.