Too hot to work?
If you hadn’t noticed, we’re in the middle of a heatwave. The UK is experiencing the hottest summer since 1976 and as the temperatures are set to continue to rise we could have the hottest summer since records began. With many people working in offices without air conditioning, industrial kitchens or outside, what are the duties on employers and can employees refuse to work if the mercury reaches a certain temperature?
There is no set maximum temperature
As some industrial workplaces require very high temperatures for their functions, such as glassworks and foundries it is difficult to set a maximum temperature for workplaces. Without a maximum temperature recommendation, employers and employees have to rely on the vague wording in The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992:
‘During working hours, the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be reasonable.’
This uncertainty can lead to disputes between employees and employers as to what is ‘reasonable’. The question is, what can each side expect from the other when it comes to working in record breaking temperatures?
High temperatures in the workplace could put employees at risk of collapse, heat stroke or heat exhaustion if they are exposed to heat for a prolonged period of time.
The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (“HSWA 1974”) imposes a duty on employers to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees by the provision and maintenance of a working environment that is, so far as is reasonably practicable, safe, without risks to health, and adequate facilities and arrangements for their welfare at work. Could a work place that is too hot breach this requirement?
It is accepted that employers could be liable should injury or illness occur which can be linked to poor work environment, which includes temperature.
The onus is not all on the employer and employees have a duty of care to themselves, and the HSWA 1974 requires employees to take reasonable care over their own health and safety, and others who may be affected by their actions at work. If it is found that an employee failed to meet this requirement, the employee may potentially be personally liable should they experience harm as a result of the heat.
Installing air conditioning, providing access to shade or even allowing working from home may be options for some employers seeking to balance employee safety in the heat whilst ensuring work is complete. However, these options might not always be reasonable or open to all employees. It is recommended that there is regular, open communication between employers and workers about workplace conditions and the onus should be on the employer to do what is reasonable in the circumstances, bearing in mind what is practical and cost-effective.
While the rising temperatures may not be accepted as a valid reason to refuse to work, employers and employees should both be mindful of the steps that need to be taken to ensure safety in the heat.