With temperatures across the UK rising to 35C this week, just a few degrees off the record set on 19 July, employers have again been advised to be flexible and promote sensible behaviours during the heatwave.
The Met Office has again issued an amber level three heat health alert, highlighting the potential health impacts. Again, not just the southern half of the UK is effected; Lancashire, Lincolnshire and parts of Yorkshire are also basking in temperatures of about 30C.
The CIPD said that adopting flexible working arrangements including working from home could help keep employees comfortable and productive while working in a heatwave.
Unlike the situation in mid-July, a lack of rainfall has now seen many areas have water restrictions placed on them, particularly in the South. Even some northern areas, however, are seeing very low reservoir levels after months of little or no rainfall and may face some limitations on usage over the next month or so.
Where employees must attend their usual workplace, organisations should consider whether to shift start and finish times to ensure staff are not commuting during busy, crowded periods. Uniform policies could also be relaxed and plenty of fans should be brought in if the workplace is not air conditioned.
The CIPD’s wellbeing adviser, Rachel Suff, said: “While there’s no specific legal minimum or maximum temperature for workplaces in the UK, employers need to make sure the temperature in workplaces is reasonable.
“In a heatwave some workplaces, such as old buildings or those with a lot of glass, can become extremely hot and employers need to be aware of the health risks. People’s health and safety should be first and foremost and employers should be particularly mindful of people with a disability or health condition as the heat can make them particularly vulnerable.
Working in a heatwave
“The heat can affect people’s level of concentration and cause fatigue, which may have health and safety implications for people working in some jobs such as safety-critical roles.”
The TUC said employers should allow frequent breaks, provide a supply of cold drinks and listen to employees’ ideas about how best to cope with the heat.
The union body also said it wanted to see a change in the law so that employers must attempt to reduce temperatures if they get above 24 degrees celsius, and a requirement to stop work if indoor temperatures reach 30 degrees or 27 degrees for those doing strenuous jobs.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said in July: “We all love it when the sun comes out. But working in sweltering conditions in a baking shop or stifling office can be unbearable and dangerous.”
Although some employees may protest that it is “too hot to work”, Lauren Harkin, an employment partner at law firm RWK Goodman, said employees do not have a right to stop working if it gets too hot.
“Given that there are industries where it will be necessary to work in higher temperatures, such as bakeries, and metal and glass production, it is difficult to envisage what an appropriate limit for a maximum temperature would be,” she said.
“Employers do, however, have a duty of care to provide a safe environment where staff are not at risk of falling ill from the heat. For those with employees that are home working, it is sensible for line managers to check in with staff to ensure that they are well and remind employees to take breaks and stay hydrated.”
Outdoor workers at risk
Organisations should also be alert to the risk of sunburn among outdoor workers, workplace health and safety body IOSH has said.
It claimed that sun exposure causes 99% of non-melanoma skin cancer and up to 65% of malignant melanoma skin cancer, but many outside workers including those in construction, agriculture, maritime industries, road working and rural occupations were ignorant of the dangers.
Research it commissioned from Nottingham University found that two-thirds of construction workers working outside for an average of seven hours a day either thought they were not at risk of skin cancer or were unsure. Nearly 60% reported having sunburn at least once in the past year, while 40% thought there was no need to wear sunscreen on a cloudy day.
IOSH head of health and safety Ruth Wilkinson said: “This heatwave maybe perfectly timed for a holiday but the reality is that the risks to sun-protected holiday-makers aren’t comparable to the risks faced by millions of outdoor workers, who for significant periods of the year are typically exposed to solar radiation for hours at a time, day in, day out.
“These workers often have long term, chronic solar radiation exposure to particular areas of the body, such as their head, neck, arms and hands, with legs and torso also being exposed on particularly hot days.”
Wilkinson claimed that at least 1,500 new cases of work-related non-melanoma skin cancer, which is more treatable than malignant melanoma, are registered each year in the UK.
IOSH advised employers of outdoor workers to try to minimise exposure to direct sunlight until at least 3pm if possible, and regularly swap job tasks between workers to ensure each employee can spend some time in the shade. Sunscreen should be encouraged, but this should not be relied upon for protection alone.
Employers should also encourage outdoor workers to wear sunglasses or safety goggles with 100% UV protection, long-sleeved, loose-fitting tops and trousers. If possible they should wear a hat, but where safety helmets are needed these should be fitted with neck flaps.
Staff should be encouraged to regularly check their skin for changes such as moles or other skin differences, in order to detect the early signs of skin cancer.
Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, employers are required to assess health and safety risks to their employees. The temperature of the workplace is one of the potential hazards that employers should address, HSE guidance says.