The heat is off for now, but employers should prepare to face a future marked by heatwaves

The record-breaking temperatures the UK was subjected to earlier this week may have passed, but experts warn that extreme heatwaves that touch 40ºC could become more frequent, with tradespeople more at risk than the millions who can work from home or in an air conditioned office.

While there are rules affecting minimum working temperatures in the UK, there are no laws for maximum temperatures, confirmed in a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) statement issued last week. However, the HSE says employers have an obligation to make sure indoor workplaces remain at a “reasonable temperature” and to manage the risk of working outdoors in hot environments.

Workers who are outside for lengthy periods in high temperatures are at serious risk of sunstroke, heat stress and  skin cancer. Working in hot weather can also lead to dehydration, tiredness, muscle cramps, rashes, fainting, and – in the most extreme cases – loss of consciousness.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) guidance states that the maximum temperature employees should work in is 30°C, or 27°C for manual workers.

So how does the UK compare internationally? According to the TUC:

  • In the US regulations say working temperatures should not go beyond 24°C
  • Spain has strict guidelines on working temperature: it must not go beyond 27°C indoors or 25°C for physical activity
  • In Germany, 26°C is generally considered the maximum for indoor work
  • In China, when temperatures reach 37°C outdoor work is banned during the hottest three hours of the day, and at 40°C it must stop altogether
  • In the UAE, outdoor work is banned entirely between the hours of 12:30 and 15:00 when it’s hottest

The HSE explains that there is no mandated maximum temperature for working because workplaces with hot processes such as bakeries or foundries would not be able to comply with such a regulation. They use other measures to control the effects of temperature, which should also be used to manage the risk of working outdoors in a hot environment. 

The TUC is advising employers to introduce the following measures to protect their staff who work outdoors when the temperatures rise:

  • Avoiding outside tasks between 11am – 3pm when temperatures, and risks, are highest.
  • Ensure that outdoor workers have sunscreen and are given advice on the need to protect themselves – available in other languages for migrant workers.
  • Allow staff to take plenty of breaks and provide a supply of drinking water.
  • Provide canopies or covering over open areas and shaded areas for breaks.
  • Provide lightweight brimmed hats and make sure protective clothing is lightweight, long-sleeved and comfortable.

John Rowe, the HSE’s acting head of operational strategy, says: “With a heatwave warning in place, its vital employers are aware of their responsibility to ensure their indoor workplaces are at a reasonable temperature. All workers have a right to a safe working environment and their employers should discuss working arrangements with them.”

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady says: “Without adequate protection outdoor workers could be in danger. Bosses must ensure their staff are protected with regular breaks, lots of fluids, plenty of sunscreen and the right protective clothing for those working outdoors – or relaxed dress codes for those working in shops and offices.

“Anyone worried about their working conditions should join a union, it’s the best way to stay safe at work and make sure your voice is heard.”

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