Summer daze – the health and wellbeing challenge of long, hot summers

What is the maximum workplace temperature? City workers head outside to enjoy the sunshine. Photo: REX
What is the maximum workplace temperature? City workers head outside to enjoy the sunshine. Photo: REX

Last year’s sweltering summer weather may feel like a distant memory right now. But, with global warming meaning hot summers could become more frequent in the UK, it makes sense to be using the winter months to put in place contingency plans to cope with the health and wellbeing risks of another scorcher, argues Gary Cattermole.

What a summer we had last year. According to the Met Office, the summer of 2018 was the joint hottest on record in the UK. Even with (hopefully) the worst of the winter over and spring now approaching, it may seem a distant memory. But we can all remember how much of the country was bathed in glorious sunshine from June to August with many daytime temperatures consistently topping 30C (86F).

Some say this was just a “blip” but with heightened concerns and dire warnings about the impact of global warming, hot summers are likely to become more frequent, and businesses need to prepare.

About the author

Gary Cattermole is director of employee research consultancy The Survey Initiative

So, what to do? And how worried should employers and occupational health both be as a result, given the well-recognised health issues and problems that can be created by long periods of hot weather?

First, let’s not panic. But it does make sense to have a look at how we coped in 2018. Getting to work was no picnic, of course. Commuters on buses, trains and London’s tube network suffered from intolerable heat and cramped conditions making the route to and from the workplace a major physical challenge.

I personally saw many office-workers clamped to their desk-top fan, sweltering as the office’s inefficient air-conditioning system couldn’t keep up with the Mediterranean-like conditions.

I turned on my radio and listened to a report that road crews were receiving verbal abuse for taking a break in the afternoon heat, and employers were having to get road crews to start at 4am to enable acceptable working conditions.

These are just a few examples – unscientific I appreciate – of how we had to “endure” the heatwave of 2018. Yes, it was great for holidaymakers and children on their summer holidays, but for workers and workplaces the summer of 2018 brought many challenges.

Maximum working temperature

The long, hot summer, unsurprisingly, brought calls from trade unions for better working standards as well as calls for statutory maximum working temperature to be put in place alongside the legal minimum we currently have.

For those who work for a big organisation where smart building technology pervades every level of their domain, including temperature control, that’s great. However, not every business can afford to invest in top-of-the-range air conditioning systems, create roof-top terraces for break out sessions and place an ice-cream freezer on each floor.

Naturally, there are health and safety rules we all need to abide by, such as the rather woolly Workplace Regulations 1992 rule of employers providing a “reasonable working temperature”, although the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) provides some clarity with its guidance that reasonable working temperature depends on the activity being performed as well as the environmental conditions of the workplace.

So, what should we do to prepare for the likelihood of more frequent scorching summer weather?

I argue employers should start off planning for summer heatwaves in much the same way as you do they would cold weather, which forms a critical part of your health and safety strategy. Contingency planning could include:

  1. Identify all potential hazards. This could include employees travelling to work, air quality and temperature in the workplace, effects of UV on outside workers, physical effects of employees working in the heat and so on.
  2. Once these risks have been noted, set up an action plan to be prepared if sustained hot temperatures become more of a regular occurrence. Your employees, naturally, will be key in helping to create this action plan. Consider setting up a focus group to discuss and decide how you can better prepare for another heatwave.
  3. Look at practical solutions or where you may be able to flexible. For example: do all your employees really need to commute into work when travel conditions are so intolerable? If you’re worried about staying in touch (or whether employees will be pulling their weight from home), consider setting up a system whereby you can ensure all home-based employees are meeting a key set of objectives.
  4. Debate your air-conditioning system. Many workers may be split on the office being too cold or too warm. Why not set up zones where employees can “hot” or “cool” desk dependent on temperature?
  5. Have a discussion about your dress code in hot weather. Could that be loosened in hot weather to ensure employees are more comfortable? What will be acceptable and what not
  6. Look at specific health risks. For example, air pollution in hot weather or the risk of dehydration and what plans you need to put in place to mitigate these. On dehydration, an easy solution would be to fit chilled water units in all workplaces. But it will be important to invite your logistic team to take part in these discussions.
  7. Don’t forget mobile or outdoor workers. Consider what sort of extra provision you’re going to need to put in place for mobile workers out on the road or for those working outside – for example regular access to water bottles, protection and breaks.

A lot of this is, of course, common-sense. But the important point is it makes sense to be planning now before any hot weather is upon us and you’re scrambling to put in contingency plans.

As an important final point, occupational health practitioners can be an important source of knowledge, guidance and advice on how to get this right and mitigate the risks and effects of another long, hot, sweltering summer in the workplace.

References
‘Summer 2018 was UK’s joint hottest on record’, Met Office says, The Guardian, 03 September, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/sep/03/summer-2018-uk-joint-hottest-on-record-met-office-says

‘MPs recommend statutory maximum workplace temperature’, 06 August, 2018, IOSH magazine, https://www.ioshmagazine.com/article/mps-recommend-statutory-maximum-workplace-temperature

‘The case for a maximum temperature at work’, TUC, https://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/Temperature.pdf

‘Temperature’, HSE guidance, http://www.hse.gov.uk/temperature/index.htm

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