How should employers manage a heatwave?
Charlotte Cooke-Vaughan, July 26, 2019
Temperatures soared to beyond 35°C in some areas this week, so employers should be aware of their responsibilities during extreme heat
Is there a maximum temperature for the workplace?
There is in fact no fixed legal maximum (or indeed minimum) temperature requirement for the workplace when work is carried out indoors. However, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) stipulates that temperatures within a workplace should be 'reasonable', which will in turn depend on the work environment and the type of work being carried out. During heatwaves employers must consider whether any additional measures should be taken to keep employees comfortable. This could include easy access to drinking water, relaxing the dress code, or allowing remote/flexible working so that employees are able to travel outside of rush hour. In offices that do not have built-in air conditioning, employers may wish to hire air con units or fans.
For businesses whose employees are required to work outdoors, where possible consider rescheduling work to cooler times of the day. If this is not possible provide adequate shade and allow longer and additional breaks to help avoid dehydration and heat exhaustion.
Are there any additional requirements with regard to vulnerable workers?
Hot weather poses significant health risks such as dehydration, heat exhaustion and overheating. During heatwaves certain groups are more at risk. These include very young and elderly people, individuals with pre-existing medical conditions, those on medication, and pregnant women. During heatwaves employers need to ensure extra consideration is given to these people and that suitable risk assessments and protective measures are implemented.
Should employees be allowed to wear different attire during the hot weather?
For businesses that have strict dress codes it is worth considering relaxing them during periods of hot weather, or if this is not possible allowing employees to arrive and leave in casual wear. This will affect employees’ comfort levels, particularly in a workplace that would ordinarily require staff to wear formal clothing or a uniform.
Employers are not under a legal obligation to relax dress codes during these periods but most are likely to consider it a reasonable and simple step to take during extreme heat.
What steps can employers take if employees are encountering issues with their commute?
Travel to and from work can be subject to delays or cancellations during a heatwave. Rail services can be severely affected when the lines buckle and expand in the heat, causing widespread disruption.
Employers should have due regard to the additional obstacles employees face during hot weather and may wish to consider permitting employees to work more flexibly, such as allowing affected individuals to work from home or to take last-minute annual leave. It can be useful to send out travel links and alerts and remind employees of any adverse weather policies as well as relaxing start and finish times to accommodate issues on the roads and railways.
Can employees request to work reduced or amended hours?
Employers are not obliged to amend the working hours of employees during a heatwave, provided other measures have been put in place to ensure staff are working in a comfortable environment.
However, employers could consider implementing half-day Fridays, greater flexibility on start and leave times, or compressed working weeks during the Summer months. But while implementing such policies could increase productivity and improve employee morale, having adequate staffing levels to meet business requirements may prove an obstacle for certain businesses, rendering such policies unworkable.
Ultimately employers are responsible for protecting employees’ health and safety, which includes taking steps to ensure working temperatures are reasonably comfortable. It will of course depend on the type of business and work carried out as to the different measures or practices that may be adopted. But carrying out a broadly flexible approach during a heatwave will no doubt be in the best interests of both employer and employee – hopefully boosting productivity and morale in the process.
Charlotte Cooke-Vaughan is an HR consultant at Cripps Pemberton Greenish