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Working through a heatwave: What does the law say?

With Europe currently sweltering under 40 degree heat and the UK experiencing its hottest June on record this year, meteorologists are forecasting the chance of Britain experiencing a hot summer is now 45% – 2.3 times the normal figure.

In light of this, it may surprise you to know that there is no legal minimum or maximum temperature for workplaces in the UK. Paul Kelly, Head of Employment law at Blacks Solicitors, shares legal insight into working through a heatwave.

What does the law say?

The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 places a legal obligation on employers only to provide a ‘reasonable’ temperature in the workplace, without the need for special clothing.

So what does this mean in practice?

The Code of Practice issued by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) states that the temperature in the working environment should be at least:

  • 16 degrees Celsius; or

  • 13 degrees Celsius, if the job entails ‘rigorous physical effort’.

This guidance does not differentiate between office and manufacturing environments, which will be vastly different as regards the amount of heat an employee is likely to be subjected to, depending on the nature of their work.

An employer must monitor the temperature in the workplace and, having taken into account the nature of the work being performed, take appropriate steps to achieve a comfortable working environment.

The guidance does not apply to workplaces where, by the very nature of the work being done, it would be impossible to maintain the suggested minimum temperatures (such as furnaces or a cold storage room). Here the onus is placed on the employer to take reasonable steps to ensure that the temperature in the working environment is as close to the minimum as possible.

There is no guidance as to maximum workplace temperatures either. The guidance simply states that employers must take all reasonable steps to achieve a ‘reasonably comfortable temperature’, and in extremely hot weather ‘fans and increased ventilation’ may be used.

To ensure that they meet their obligations under the HSE Code of Practice, employers should conduct a thermal risk assessment to determine how temperature fluctuations might affect their staff and then take appropriate measures.

This should ensure that work, and indeed the usual productivity levels of the workforce, continues uninterrupted during periods of extreme heat (or cold) and will reduce the risk of health and safety claims that might arise from employees being forced to work (or dismissed because they refused to work) in uncomfortable conditions.