Working in a heatwave: When is it too hot?

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Experts are predicting that this will be one of the hottest UK summers on record

It may surprise people to learn that there is no maximum workplace temperature for the office. While the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 do not specify a maximum temperature they say that employers must maintain a reasonable temperature, but what is reasonable will depend on the nature of the workplace and the activities undertaken.

The Health and Safety Executive says employers should consider six factors when deciding whether to keep people in the workplace. These include air temperature, radiant temperatures, air velocity, humidity, the clothing employees are expected to wear, and their expected work rate. To ascertain if their workplace temperatures are reasonable, employers should carry out a risk assessment, and then implement any appropriate controls.

Can employers enforce a dress code in the heat?

Many offices have a strict formal dress code, with business suits or smart jackets required, while other workplaces require employees to wear a uniform or protective clothing and equipment.

Employers can still enforce a dress code during a heatwave and potentially discipline or send home staff who refuse to follow it, provided they follow proper procedures. However, there is obviously a common sense approach to working in very high temperatures.

To keep staff happy and productive employers may choose to relax their dress code temporarily, adding some stipulations about certain items not allowed, such as beachwear.

What advice is there for employers on handling employees who are late because of transport disruptions caused by the heat?

Employers often ask if they have to pay employees who arrive at work late for the missed time. However, unless there’s specific contractual provision for this there’s no obligation on employers to pay staff who arrive late, even through no fault of their own. The onus is on employees to get to work and the obligation to pay under the contract of employment arises only where they are ready, willing and available for work. A failure to pay an employee in this situation is not an unlawful deduction of wages under the Employment Rights Act 1996, because there is no contractual right to any such payment.

However, many employers will try to make some accommodation for employees who are having problems getting to work because of public transport disruptions. They may encourage more flexible working or working from home or allow people to make any missed time up later. Another option might be for the parties to agree that any missed time will be taken as paid annual leave, where the employee wishes to be paid for the time off.

To ensure consistent treatment among staff and avoid confusion over the issue of payment it’s useful for employers to have a policy on disruptions to public transport. This policy can also set out the steps employees are expected to take to get into work at times like this.

With scientists reporting a streak of three consecutive record-breaking hot years last year, working in a heatwave may become a more regular occurrence. All the more reason for HR teams to decide how they will ensure employees are comfortable and productive during these periods.

Jo Stubbs is head of content at XpertHR

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