Heat wave advice for employers

This year in the UK, we have seen unprecedented temperatures reached in June and July, and with 30°C heat predicted for the rest of the summer, this could cause potential problems for employers…

While wonderful for those picnicking in a park, or lying on a beach, such temperatures are less enjoyable for those working in an office, where dress codes often dictate suits for men and formal attire for women.

In the UK there is no legal requirement for employers to adhere to a maximum temperature in the workplace, instead advice and guidance from the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) states "during working hours, the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be reasonable." What is ‘reasonable’ depends on the type of work being conducted (manual labour, office work, etc) and the nature of the workplace (ie kitchen, air conditioned office, etc).

Irrespective of the absence of a legal ceiling for temperatures in the workplace,  and with temperatures rising above 30°C in some parts of the UK this week – employers are being urged to take a more practical approach.

Dress code and unfair dismissal

As an employer you have a duty of care to ensure that your employees are working in a safe environment. Suppose an office has no proper cooling system and an employee repeatedly refuses to wear a jacket and tie each day because it’s too hot. If the employee was sacked as a result and they had at least two years’ continuous service, they could bring an unfair dismissal claim against their employer. Depending on the circumstances, an employment tribunal would be likely to find that the sanction imposed was outside the band of ‘reasonable’ responses open to an employer – and therefore the dismissal was unfair.

While employers are under no obligation to relax their dress code or uniform requirements during hot weather, some may allow workers to wear more casual clothes, or allow "dress down" days. This does not necessarily mean that shorts and flip flops are appropriate workwear, rather that employees may relax the rules in regards to wearing ties, suits and formal attire.

Hydration

While of course the saying goes ‘you can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink,’ employers must provide staff with suitable drinking water in the workplace. Whether this be in the form of a traditional water fountain or a kitchen sink’s cold tap or a high-tech water cooler, ensuring that your employees can keep themselves hydrated is of high priority.

Vulnerable workers

The hot weather can make workers feel tired and less energetic especially those who are older, pregnant or on medication. Employers may wish to give these workers more frequent rest breaks and ensure ventilation is adequate by providing fans, or portable air cooling units.

Journey to work

Generally hot weather shouldn't affect journeys to work, but occasionally in the UK there might be an impact on public transport if temperatures exceed a certain level. Train companies may limit the speed of trains in case the tracks buckle which may result in a delayed departure or arrival. Your employees should check with the local train company to see if speed restrictions are in place or cancellations are expected, plan their journey ahead and inform you accordingly.

Fasting during hot weather

Many Muslims will fast each day from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan as part of their faith. This includes not eating food, drinking liquids or smoking, and when it falls in the summer months it can be particularly challenging. Employees may wish to use annual leave when observing the Ramadan rules, and employers may help by holding meetings etc. in the mornings when energy levels are highest. To accommodate this, employers could also consider a temporary change in working hours.

So whilst employers are not legally obliged to provide air conditioning in workplaces they are expected to ensure  the working environment is a reasonable temperatures and be understanding with regards to uniform requirements.

Equally ensure that your employees utilise a degree of common sense in the heat - if there is air conditioning make sure they switch it on, if the office has blinds or curtains encourage them to use them to block out sunlight and if they're working outside check they are wearing appropriate clothing and advise the use of sunscreen to protect themselves from sunburn.

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