Managing heat in the workplace
by Andrew Winton
On Tuesday 19 July 2022 parts of the UK set new record temperatures. Charterhall in the Scottish borders recorded a temperature of 34.8 degrees Celsius, the highest ever recorded in Scotland. Whereas Coningsby in Lincolnshire reported a new UK high of 40.3 degrees Celsius. This has caused fires to break out in parts of the UK and resulted in the UK’s first ever red travel warning due to extreme heat.
UK temperature records from the Met Office show that, since 1884, all of the UK’s ten warmest years have occurred in the last two decades. So managing the heat is likely to be an issue for employers for many summers to come.
The law on heat in the workplace
The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 requires employers to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their staff and others present in the workplace. But there is presently no set minimum or maximum temperature for indoor workplaces.
Regulation 7 of The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 (the 1992 Regulations) stipulates that the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be ‘reasonable’.
Of course, employers should also remember their overriding legal obligation to undertake a suitable assessment of health and safety risks to employees, of which temperature in the workplace would be one of many potential hazards to be considered.
A sufficient number of thermometers should be provided to enable persons at work to determine the temperature in any workplace inside a building. Temperature readings should be taken close to workstations, at working height and away from windows.
While there are no stipulated temperature limits, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has an Approved Code of Practice (ACOP) with guidance for employers. The purpose of the ACOP is to help employers understand the regulatory requirements in the 1992 Regulations. The ACOP was first published in 1992 and last updated in 2013.
At the lower end of the scale, the ACOP notes that the temperature in a workplace such as an office should normally be at least 16 degrees Celsius. If work involves rigorous physical effort, the minimum temperature should be 13 degrees Celsius.
There is no maximum temperature recommended in the guidance, but there may be increased calls to introduce this in years ahead given the recurring hot summers. In July 2022 the GMB Union publicly called on the UK Government to set a maximum temperature of 25 degrees Celsius. NASUWT, the Teachers’ Union, has called on maximum classroom temperatures of 24 degrees Celsius to be set.
What should employers consider?
The ACOP notes that if a reasonably comfortable temperature cannot be achieved through local cooling systems in the building then, in extremely hot weather, fans and increased ventilation may be used.
When the ACOP was last updated in 2013, working from home was not particularly common. Employers that have adapted to home working during the COVID-19 pandemic may want to support staff with home working during periods of extreme heat. Alternatively, employers may consider relaxing formal dress codes during periods of extreme heat, or staggering shift patterns so employees can avoid travel between the hotter hours of the day.
Employers should take particular care when dealing with employees who find working in the heat more difficult than others because of a disability, and should consider what temporary reasonable adjustments may be appropriate in these circumstances. Employees who are pregnant are also more susceptible to heat exhaustion, so employers should be prepared to take additional measures as necessary in special cases.
If you require any advice or guidance on managing employees in the extreme heat, please do not hesitate to contact Kevin Clancy, Gillian Moore or Andrew Winton in the firm’s Workplace, Risk and Regulation Group.