Is there a legal maximum temperature at work?

As temperatures continue to soar, many employees are struggling to keep their cool at work. So, when is it too hot to work?

The Law

Unfortunately, there is not one, clear rule for when the temperatures rise, and the law is generally unhelpful for all those suffering in the heat.

An employer is expected to prevent the workplace being uncomfortably hot although there is no definition of what this means. The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 only says that an employer must maintain a reasonable temperature where you work, but it does not specify a maximum temperature.

In contrast, there is a suggested minimum temperature of 16°C, or 13°C if your work involves considerable physical activity.

The meaning of ‘reasonable’, of course, would be very different on a market stall to in a bakery or to in an open plan office block.

The law does say that if ‘a significant number of employees are complaining about thermal discomfort’ then it’s the employer’s responsibility to carry out a risk assessment, and act on its results.

The duty to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010 may also provide additional protection to those with a defined disability.

Common sense?

What should not be overlooked in this situation is common sense. Whatever the thermometer reads, if people are complaining of the heat, common sense says that it is too hot, and something must be done about it.

Employers should also remember that how we respond to heat can also depend on the weight and age of a person, and that air temperature is only a rough guide because humidity, wind speed, radiant heat sources, clothing, etc. all have an effect on how comfortable someone is in the office.

The Future

Unfortunately, common sense can often be overlooked in the workplace, particularly when not everyone is affected in the same way.

Everyone must, nevertheless, appreciate that with heat waves seemingly becoming more common; and with the continuing impact of global warming from which we may experience generally higher temperatures all year round; there are now renewed calls for a change in the law. This is no longer a seasonal irritation.

In response to the recent soaring temperatures, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) has called for the introduction of an upper limit on workplace temperature so that employers would be forced to act when the temperature inside reaches 24°C. It would mean that staff could be sent home and their employers prosecuted if temperatures at work hit greater than 30°C (or 27°C for those engaged in physically demanding work). The TUC has set out their own case for a legally enforceable maximum working temperature.

This is perhaps some way away at this time, and so in the meantime, different employers will continue to have widely differing policies on this subject; while some jobs sectors and roles will continue to require specific uniform whatever the weather.

Cooling procedures

Things to consider for employees:

  • Ask for and read the dress code policy;

It’s always worth checking the employers uniform policy to check the dos and don’ts during warmer temperatures.

Some roles may provide an alternative choice of uniform or perhaps clothing which can provide lighter layers, but there are some roles which require a certain dress-code to be adhered to whatever the weather, usually due to health & safety requirements. Some companies may offer a dress-down option during hot weather which. although unlikely to necessarily mean beachwear, it may offer the option of cooler, comfier clothing during soaring temperatures.

  • We are not fashion experts by any means, but nobody should be made to wilt in the heat for the sake of keeping up appearances.

In most cases, we would suggest avoiding denim and instead opt for clothing made out of linen, silk and muslin. These materials are all breathable and can be appropriately smart, so if you do have to stick to a smart dress code, switching to a different material can still ensure you’re cool and comfy during the summer.

Another option is to buy clothing the next size up. This ensures clothes are a little looser and will therefore help you to feel cooler during the heat.

  • Tell your employer if you are too hot and do not suffer in silence.
  • Make your own adjustments – drink more water; cut out caffeine; eat smaller portions at lunch.
  • Work in any outdoor space that the workplace may benefit from, provided there is shade of course.

Things to consider by the employer:

Like everything, this requires a degree of flexibility.

  • Allow staff to work flexible hours to avoid travelling in the rush hour and avoid busier and longer journeys in a car/train or bus.
  • Have a companywide policy on the use of air-conditioning and/or fans – but remember your Green environmental credentials.
  • Office maintenance – make sure your windows can be operated safely, and that your air conditioning is serviced to ensure efficient cooling.
  • Turn off the lights.
  • Buy your staff ice creams; ice lollies or similar products as a treat.
  • Keep hydrated – encourage your staff to drink more water. Allow sports bottles to be brought in, or provide a cooler with drinks in. Turn the tea break into a water break.
  • Consider allowing staff to work from home – trust is important here of course!

The reasonableness of any cooling procedure will always depend according to the business but being flexible and considerate is vital.  

Employers should also remember to think how any cooling procedures, such as using air conditioning or opening windows may affect staff, for example with hay-fever; or how sitting in a breeze all day may impact staff someone.

Why?

Ultimately, it is unlikely anyone wants to be at work while there is glorious sunshine, and so everyone must appreciate that all staff are simply trying to cope as best they can, while getting the job done, so everyone can go home and enjoy the sun. Tempers can shorten when we are uncomfortable and so flexibility and common sense can avoid tempers snapping.

Evidence also shows that as heat rises so does absenteeism. Summer ‘sickies’ on Mondays and Fridays, in particular, rise with staff feeling less motivated to face the commute and a long day in the office. 

Therefore, it’s very important to keep the office cool, consider flexible working arrangements and opt for more casual dress. You’d rather a staff member come in early and work their hours and more importantly deliver their objectives over calling in sick (which can cause further demotivation in the office if other staff members have to pick up the slack!)

The law as it stands doesn’t properly protect working people in what for England and Wales, in extreme heat. It appears entirely sensible to have a maximum working temperature enshrined in law because everyone has the right to come home from work safe and healthy.

Until that happens however, in a nutshell and with just a bit of common sense, switch off the lights, run to the local shop and stock up on ice creams and be flexible.

Photo by Dakota Corbin on Unsplash

This article was written and researched by Albert Bargery, Solicitor at our Isle of Wight Office. Albert advises employers and employees on the Isle of Wight and throughout the UK. You can contact Albert by email: [email protected]

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The information contained in this blog post is provided for guidance and is a snapshot of the law at the time it is written. It is provided for your information only and should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice that it specific to your particular circumstances.

The guidance should not be relied upon in any decision making process. It is strongly recommended that you seek advice before taking action.

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