Spotlight on: handling heatwaves

Has summer come and gone? After an unusually warm spring, torrential rain created the wettest June since records began in 1914, with many regions experiencing well above normal rainfall. Summer may appear to have been lost under a big cloud, but a heatwave may still be around the corner.

Despite the recent downpours, the Met Office says there is still a high probability that mean temperatures for the remainder of summer 2007 will be above 1971-2000 averages for much of the UK.

Soaring temperatures during the 2003 heatwave claimed 27,000 lives across north-west Europe. Employers need to take the issue seriously, but what actions should HR departments take?


As well as affecting the health of employees, high temperatures in the workplace can reduce worker morale and productivity, and increase absenteeism and mistakes. It is the employer’s responsibility to ensure that a reasonable working temperature is provided in an office environment.

“This is usually at least 16°C,” explains The National Britannia Group’s Wendy Payne, who is health and safety consultant for the firm’s health, safety and environment helpline Responseline.

“Where a comfortable temperature cannot be maintained throughout each work room, local heating or cooling should be provided,” she adds.

In extremely hot weather, fans and increased ventilation can be used instead of local cooling. “The heating systems that are provided should not give off dangerous or offensive levels of fumes into the workplace, and they should provide sufficient space for them in work rooms,” says Payne.

During a heatwave, HR should liaise with employees, safety representatives and management to ensure complaints and concerns are dealt with promptly.

Failure to do so can have legal implications, including potential prosecution for a breach of health and safety law. Breaches of duties under sections two to six of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 carry a maximum fine on conviction in the magistrates’ court of £20,000, explains Payne. In the Crown Court, the maximum penalty is an unlimited fine.

Be cool

Staff suffering in sweltering workplaces run the risk of fatigue, irritability and higher stress levels. It’s important to keep hydrated, and use fans or air conditioning provided, and draw the window blinds to keep the heat out.

HR can communicate tips to staff at their initial induction when they join the company. Information can also be exchanged by safety representatives at their regular meetings and fed back to employees.

“Think about producing a monthly or other regular newsletter where relevant information regarding health and safety can be distributed,” suggests Payne.

‘Unsettled’ is perhaps the best description of the summer to date, but as temperatures finally begin to rise, enjoy what time we have in the sun, with a little common sense and planning along the way.

  • Keep hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids, preferably water. Avoid alcohol, tea and coffee.
  • Avoid direct sunlight during the hottest part of the day (11am to 3pm).
  • Wear light, loose-fitting clothes, preferably cotton, and a hat if possible.
  • Try to eat more cold food, particularly salads and fruit, which contain water.
  • Listen to radio and TV and follow health advice.

Source: Department of Health

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