Much of England and Wales is on the cusp of a heatwave, lasting until Friday at least, according to the Met Office. Temperatures are set to reach around 35C in the South East and employers will be checking guidance to ensure staff wellbeing is not affected.
The impact on productivity and wellbeing will depend on the duration of the hot spell, how employers and workers take precautions how well the transport infrastructure stands up.
Last year’s 15-day heatwave in June and July in England and Wales claimed over 700 more deaths than normal for the period. MPs on the environmental audit committee warned at the time that the government had ignored warnings from its official climate change adviser, and that without action heat-related deaths will triple to 7,000 a year by the 2040s.
Although the hot spell is not expected to last as long as that of summer 2018, the growing frequency of this type of extreme weather has increased pressure on government to take action to protect the health of workers.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady recommended that employers should relax dress codes and be flexible on working times to avoid the hottest part of the day can make things much easier.
Trade unions and some MPs have, for several years, urged the government to adopt a maximum workplace temperature of 30ºC for non-manual work and 27ºC for manual work. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has defined an acceptable zone of thermal comfort of “roughly” between 13ºC and 30ºC.
However, the government remains wedded to the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, under which employers have an obligation to provide a “reasonable” temperature in the workplace. No specific maximum limit has been set, despite the regulation suggesting a minimum workplace temperature of “normally” 13ºC to 16ºC for physical work.
Last September, the government accepted several recommendations from the Environmental Audit Committee relating to alert systems, responsibilities of various departments and responses to hot weather by the NHS, local authorities and transport infrastructure, including passenger welfare on public transport.
However, ministers did not set out plans to establish an upper temperature limit, despite pressure from MPs.
The government’s response stated: “In 2009, an independent review of workplace temperatures completed on behalf of HSE concluded that there is little evidence of significant numbers of cases of illnesses (long or short term, physical or psychological) caused or exacerbated by exposure to high temperatures at work and concludes that this is not an issue that justifies active regulatory intervention.”
The scientific advice the government follows points out that air temperature is only one indicator of discomfort. The advice states that temperature limits would not prevent the serious condition of heat stress from occurring and may be counterproductive in health and safety terms if inaction occurred below the upper limit.
Other factors, such as humidity, air velocity and radiant temperature, become more significant (and the interplay between them more complex) as the temperature rises. It says: “It is the employer’s duty to determine, in consultation with their workforce, what is ‘reasonable comfort’ and to take action accordingly.”
Up to the employer
HSE guidance adds that the high temperatures found in some work environments, such as bakeries, kitchens, glass works or foundries, also means no upper figure can be given.
It is still possible to work safely at such high temperatures, it states, provided the right controls are in place. Factors such as clothing, work rate and humidity must all be carefully monitored. If not, heat stress is the result, when the body’s means of controlling its internal temperature begins to fail.
This means the onus is firmly on the employer to decide whether to take any action. According to the HSE: “In addition to the Workplace Regulations, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to make a suitable assessment of the risks to the health and safety of their employees, and take action where necessary and where reasonably practicable.
“The temperature of the workplace is one of the potential hazards that employers should address to meet their legal obligations. Employers should consult with employees or their representatives to establish sensible means to cope with high temperatures.”
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Outdoor staff are particularly at risk from heat stress and also skin cancer. The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) said in March that at least 1,500 new diagnoses of non-melanoma skin cancer and 240 new cases of malignant melanoma linked to solar ultraviolet radiation (UVR) exposure at work every year could be avoided if businesses developed “sun safety strategies”. It warns that some outdoor workers deliberately expose themselves to sunlight to get a tan and to cool down.
Another factor affecting commuters and outdoor workers is pollution. Cities magnify heat and the risk to public health is high as pollution increases with vehicle emissions being effectively “cooked”, creating an excess of ground-level ozone. This affects people’s breathing to the extent that those with respiratory ailments or heart problems can suffer serious health problems.
Last summer, multiple pollution warnings were issued in London (where many boroughs’ pollution exceeds legal air quality limits), where ozone pockets and nitrogen dioxide concentrations make it significantly worse than other Western cities, according to experts, and more akin to Indian and Chinese urban centres.
Despite this, it would still be up to construction contractors, courier companies and other outdoor employers to decide whether to issue masks to workers or reduce hours of work.
Heat and the brain
The impact of extreme temperatures on employees’ brains – and therefore their productivity –should also not be underestimated.
Last year, neuroscientist Dr André Vermeulen advised in Personnel Today: “Heat influences our neurotransmitter production negatively, resulting in reduced electrical transmission between brain cells therefore affecting our productivity at work. This is why we need to do all we can to stay cool, helping our brains maintain optimal cognitive performance and improving their agility at the same time.”
Vermeulen encouraged employers to ensure staff, particularly those working outside, are fully aware of the need to stay hydrated.
Finally, hot weather can often lead to problems with transport, with train tracks buckling and tarmac road surfaces melting.
Advice from XpertHR states that there is no legal obligation on employers to pay employees who arrive late, even if this is down to a heat-related transport problem, as the obligation to pay under the contract of employment arises only where they are ready, willing and available for work.
However, it adds, employers should consider making allowances for employees having problems getting to work due to public transport disruptions, such as allowing more flexible hours or working from home, or allowing employees to make any missed time up later.
Lynne Adams, associate at law firm Hewitsons, told Personnel Today she advised employers to relax strict dress code policies. She said: “It is possible to consider relaxing it while still insisting on certain minimum standards of appearance for staff who are likely to come into contact with clients or customers (for example, no ties).”
She added that particular attention should be given to more vulnerable employees such as those who are pregnant, elderly or disabled, where consideration should be given to offering more frequent breaks or ensuring adequate fresh air circulation.
As for transport, Adams suggested that working from home should be considered where rail and road difficulties were anticipated and where the pollution increase could affect productivity and health: “Employers may consider whether certain employees could usefully work from home while bearing in mind the impact any such decisions could have on the rest of the workforce.”