One of the UK’s major unions, the GMB, has joined the call for a maximum workplace temperature to be set to protect the health and safety of workers during heatwaves.
The union has joined the TUC in calling for a legal limit on how hot it can be in a workplace as forecasters predict a record high of 41C in England and the Met Office issues a red warning for heat – covering cities including London, Manchester and York – for Monday and Tuesday.
The GMB wants to see a maximum workplace temperature of 25C enshrined in law, while the TUC wants there to be a requirement to stop work if indoor temperatures reach 30C, or 27C for those doing strenuous jobs.
Lynsey Mann, the GMB’s health and safety officer, said: “This hot weather is great for being on a sun lounger, but if you’re trying to work through it’s no joke. Bosses need to do everything possible to keep workplaces cool and, more importantly, safe.”
“Ultimately, there needs to be a legal maximum working temperature.”
A number of MPs recently backed the call for a maximum workplace temperature via an early day motion that was tabled last week.
The motion states: “Recent surveys of workplace health and safety representatives show that high temperatures are one of their top concerns… workers in the UK have no guaranteed legal safeguards from working in uncomfortable high temperatures, and that the consequences of this range from dizziness, tiredness, asthma, throat infections and, in extreme cases, heat stroke and death.”
The motion states that if a maximum temperature of 30C is reached, or 27C for strenuous work, then employers should have a statutory duty to introduce control measures, such as ventilation or move staff away from windows and sources or heat.
There is currently no legal limit on temperatures at work, but the Health and Safety Executive says workplaces should ideally be at least 16C or 13C if the job is mostly physical.
Adam Pennington, a senior associate solicitor at law firm Stephensons, said workers’ rights have not kept up with changing climate trends and the pattern of extreme heat episodes seen over recent years.
“From a legal perspective, whilst there isn’t a specific set temperature that organisations deem too hot to work, they do have a duty of care for their employees,” he said. “The Health and Safety Executive guidance suggests that the workplace temperature must be ‘reasonable’, and the government recommends a ‘comfortable’ working environment with access to fresh air. Naturally, this is going to vary according to the type of work being undertaken and where that work is being done.
“Organisations must also make detailed risk assessments for all staff and consider the impact of a heatwave on more vulnerable colleagues or those with health conditions.”
Martin Williams, head of employment and partner at law firm Mayo Wynne Baxter, said: “An arbitrary maximum temperature for a working environment may have an immediate appeal but it is not the solution unions my think it is.
“Working conditions are as variable as working types and there is no one size fits all. Mitigating the effects of exposure to heat is what is required and this will depend on the individual and the workplace.
“It is a health and safety matter where assessment is key. While working from home is a popular clarion call, it is not a suitable fix for all work types. Further, for office workers, there is no guarantee that the home is going to be a cooler place to work than an air-conditioned office.”
Rhona Darbyshire,head of the employment team at law firm Cripps, said a change in law in the near future would be unlikely
“It would therefore need to join the long queue of other employment legislation which is currently awaiting to be addressed. The more frequently we see such extreme temperatures the higher up the government’s agenda it will go and the more likely it will be addressed. The HSE guidance makes a distinction between differing types of working environments (e.g. builders vs desk workers) and therefore I would expect that any such law introduced would do the same,” she said.
Absence during the heatwave
Meanwhile, software platform BrightHR has reported a 59% increase in the number of leave requests submitted for today (18 July). However, sickness rates have also been climbing, with a 15% increase in absence due to illness last week.
CEO Alan Price said employers should make sure they would not be left understaffed before accepting requests for annual leave.
He said: “Annual leave requests always pile up once the weather gets better. The beautiful weather we’ve seen recently has put everyone in the holiday mood, and with it predicted to be even hotter this coming week, many are wanting to make the most of it.
“When an employee calls in sick when the weather is good it can be easy to jump to conclusion, but don’t assume that every absence is fake.
“The average number of sicknesses also rose by 15% last week and while there will be genuine cases of illness – especially with rising Covid rates – it can be tempting for staff to use sick leave to enjoy the heat. Continue your usual absence management procedures as normal and if you have some concerns consider asking employees to call in rather than text or email.”