Some like it hot; but heatwave could put SME workers at risk

As a heatwave threatens, a lack of clear guidelines on maximum workplace temperatures could put millions of employees at a health risk.

With the mercury rising this week, British workers’ health could be put at risk due to a lack of clear, legal guidelines on the heatwave and maximum temperatures allowed in the workplace, according to office space search engine, Office Genie.

heatwave workplace on the beach

As the UK faces a heatwave, it’s been revealed that British employees are not fully protected by law against high temperatures under which they may be forced to work.

Currently, workplace regulations state that employers must act if workplace temperatures dip below 16ºC (13ºC for workplaces where people carry out intense physical work), but there is no equivalent maximum temperature.

So, Office Genie has put together its own guidelines and advice to remind employers as to how they might deal with hot days in the office.

Peter Ames, Head of Operations at Office Genie said, “We’re on the brink of a heatwave and the legal obligations for workplace temperatures are opaque. It makes very little sense to me. At the bottom end of the scale, employers are obliged to take action in most workplaces when the temperature dips below 16⁰C but there’s no similar figure for high temperatures. This could well be putting the health of millions workers at risk. The TUC has been campaigning for years that a guideline maximum temperature should be between 27 – 30⁰C and this is something I wholeheartedly support.”

“Other factors also play their part; for example some workplaces do not allow employees to open windows, ironically often due to health and safety regulations – if there’s no air conditioning then you’re going to face a hugely uncomfortable working environment when the temperatures rise.”

“In 2015, when employee wellness is rightly a massive concern for business across the world, it seems bizarre the regulations regarding maximum workplace temperature are so vague.”

Below is a guide to existing regulations and what employers should be aware of :

  • Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 state an indoor workplace should be a minimum of 16⁰C, or 13⁰C if work involves considerable physical exercise.
    – Regulation 7: During working hours, the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be reasonable.
  • Associated Approved Code of Practice: The temperature in workrooms should provide reasonable comfort without the need for special clothing. Where such a temperature is impractical because of hot or cold processes, all reasonable steps should be taken to achieve a temperature which is as close as possible to comfortable.
  • Health and Safety Executive (HSE): “An acceptable zone of thermal comfort for most people in the UK lies roughly between 13°C (56°F) and 30°C (86°F)”.
  • HSE (continued): “A meaningful figure cannot be given at the upper end of the scale. This is because the factors, other than air temperature which determine thermal comfort.”
  • Workplace Regulations, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999: Employers are obliged to assess risks to health and safety – act where necessary (i.e. if the workplace drops below the minimum guideline or if it is felt the temperature is too high)

When to act

Employers are advised that a thermal risk assessment may be necessary in the following circumstances:

  • Air conditioned offices: If more than 10% of employees are complaining
  • Naturally ventilated offices: If more than 15% of employees are complaining
  • Retail businesses, warehouses, factories and all other indoor environments that may not have air conditioning: When more than 20% of people complain

Steps to take

If the thermal risk assessment shows heat to be a risk to health and safety in the workplace, the following steps are advised by HSE:

  • Controlling temperature using fans or air conditioning
  • Provide mechanical aids to reduce employee work rate
  • Prevent exposure through:
    – Allowing workers into the workplace in cooler parts of the day
    – Issue permits to specify how long workers spend in high-risk situations
    – Providing rest breaks
    – Ensuring rest areas provide cooler conditions
    – Prevent dehydration by supplying access to cold water
    – Relax dress codes to increase employee comfort
    – Provide specialised personal protective equipment designed for comfort in hot conditions

Good practice during a heatwave

All employers are also advised the following steps are good practice in creating a low-risk workplace:

  • Insulate hot water pipes
  • Provide air conditioning and fans, specifically in hot weather
  • Ensure all windows can be opened
  • Keep workstations out of direct sunlight and away from sources of heat
  • Identify employees at greatest risk
  • Train workers to be able to identify symptoms of heat stress and appropriate solutions
  • Provide sufficient thermometers to evaluate temperature throughout the workplace

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