Legal position: too hot to work?
What risk controls should employers have for heatwaves?
What about remote workers in a heatwave?

Comment


In a recent press release, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) urged businesses to think about how they need to adapt to warmer working conditions and to make extreme heat part of their long-term planning.

Legal position: too hot to work?

There is no maximum temperature for workplaces in the United Kingdom, so no specific temperature at which it becomes officially "too hot to work". The position differs across the globe.(1)

The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, however, require employers to provide a "reasonable" temperature in the workplace during working hours. In addition, all employers have statutory duties to carry out suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks to their employees' health while at work, and to take all reasonably practicable steps to minimise those risks.

Risks include those from more frequent extreme weather such as heatwaves.

The HSE has now said that it expects employers to take recent weather events as the prompt to look more closely at the risks of high temperatures in their workplaces. Employers should review the controls they have in place and update them if needed.

As the HSE puts it: "Extreme heat that we have witnessed of late isn't going to stop and we want employers to plan and respond to this now."

What risk controls should employers have for heatwaves?

The HSE guidance suggests various ways in which employers can manage the risks of heat discomfort, including:

  • providing fans;
  • placing workstations away from direct sunlight;
  • providing cold water dispensers;
  • relaxing formal dress codes;
  • introducing flexible working patterns; and
  • using air conditioning.

Employers may need to pay particular attention to employees who are pregnant or have pre-existing health conditions that make them particularly vulnerable.

There is specific guidance for employees who need to work outdoors, where the effects of hot weather can potentially have a serious impact on an employee's health if not properly managed.

What about remote workers in a heatwave?

It is a shame that the HSE guidance does not address this issue specifically, given the huge increase in people working from home since the covid-19 pandemic.

The rules requiring a reasonable temperature in the workplace do not extend to home offices. The general statutory duties to assess and control risks do, however, apply equally to those who are working from home. Employers should therefore include homeworkers when assessing the risks of future heatwaves and when putting in place appropriate control measures. It is particularly important that employers do not overlook remote workers if they are relying on office air conditioning as their main control measure, since employees working at home are unlikely to have access to similar thermal comfort controls.

Other control measures could include:

  • contacting people who are working at home in a heatwave to check they have a suitably ventilated or temperature-controlled room at home in which to work;
  • permitting additional breaks so employees can find alternative spaces and ways to cool off; and
  • providing practical guidance on managing in hot conditions such as the importance of hydration and switching off heat generating electronic equipment when not in use.

Where concerns cannot be addressed satisfactorily, employers may even need to consider asking employees to temporarily work from the employer's premises instead of from home or switch the days in which they do so to coincide with temperature peaks (although travelling in extreme heat may of course present other challenges).

Will employees increasingly look to install home air conditioning units? If so, it would take a heavy toll on the environment (for further commentary on whether environmental issues should be a factor in weighing up remote working requests, see "Climate emergency – the missing factor in remote working requests?"). It is thought that employers would very rarely, if ever, be required to financially support the provision of air conditioning units in employee's homes, especially when there is the viable alternative of travelling into the employer's air-conditioned office, and employers should carefully consider the emissions impact of encouraging this, even where employees are willing to fund it themselves. Collaborative working spaces with air conditioning close to where employees live may provide an alternative, less damaging, solution where the home is too hot and the office is too far away.

What about employees working remotely from an overseas location? Local health and safety laws may apply, including rules about working in extreme temperatures.

Comment

Calls for the United Kingdom to follow other countries in adopting specific legislation about maximum temperatures are likely to increase but, for now, employers should take note of the HSE's advice and review their processes. Heat protection measures look set to become a routine part of the risk assessment.

For further information on this topic please contact Jonathan Carr or Gemma Taylor at Lewis Silkin by telephone (+44 20 7074 8000‚Äč) or email ([email protected] or [email protected]). The Lewis Silkin website can be accessed at www.lewissilkin.com.

Endnotes

(1) For further details, see "Managing extreme heat at work".