As temperatures are set to rise well above 30C this week, with a record-breaking 37C on Thursday (July 25) predicted in parts of the South East, British workers are well and truly feeling the heat.
The latest heatwave, which will on Thursday break the July temperature record, may have many wondering whether it’s safe to work, and what their rights are.
The TUC has issued a guide for reps outlining what employers can do to make sure their workers stay safe and cool in high temperatures, including fitting windows that can be opened, installing fans, moving staff away from windows or sources of heat or installing ventilation or air-cooling.
But for those searching for some respite in the law, they’ll be sadly disappointed. While there is a legal minimum temperature under which workers can refuse to work — and what’s more there is a legal maximum temperature under which livestock may be transported — no such legal protection exists for British workers who are trying to beat the heat.
The only legal obligation is one set out in the Workplace (Health, Safety, and Welfare) Regulations 1992, which says that temperatures in workplaces must be “reasonable” but the regulations fail to define what reasonable is.
Introducing a legal maximum working temperature was raised in Parliament last year after a record-breaking scorching summer, but in the end the government failed to act.
The Environmental Select Committee published a report last July about heatwaves and their increasing impact through climate change. It recommended that workers operating in temperatures above 28 degrees should have a reduced dress code and flexible working should be allowed.
However the government rejected the recommendations out of hand.
Unite national health and safety advisor Bud Hudspith said the union is continuing to campaign for a change in the law. This is because protecting workers from high temperatures isn’t simply a matter of comfort.
“The dangers of working in hot conditions are well-documented,” he said. “We know that heat can cause fatigue, dizziness, fainting and dehydration. It’s common too for stress levels to spike. In extreme cases, high temperatures can cause heat stroke, confusion and even delirium.”
“Heat is by all accounts a major health and safety hazard, but the law as it stands now is not sufficient to adequately protect workers,” he added. “While there is an explicit, legal minimum temperature under which workers can refuse to work, there is no such maximum temperature. Unite is lobbying to change the law to set a legal maximum temperature of 27C in strenuous work and 30C generally.”