Kitchen staff at boiling point

Unite chefs feel the heat as union reiterates call for maximum working temperature

Reading time: 10 min

In the week ahead of International Workers’ Memorial Day on Sunday (April 28), UniteLive turns its attention to this year’s IWMD theme – workers’ health and the climate crisis.

Earlier this week in our IWMD series, we looked at the affect of rising temperatures on farming and forestry workers, who are toiling in increasingly unsafe conditions outdoors.

But as the globe heats up, so too do temperatures indoors – there really is no escape from the heat, and with it the serious health hazards that accompany high temperatures.

Today, we shine a spotlight on workers who are on the frontline of extreme working temperatures indoors – commercial kitchen staff, who regularly labour in temperatures exceeding 30C.

And in an industry notorious for poor working conditions, these workers are often at the mercy of management who refuse to make even the smallest adjustments for the safety of staff — especially if it means it’ll cut into their bottom line.

Unite member Jules has been a chef for over 25 years and he’s seen it all.

“We’ve taken temperature readings in many kitchens I’ve worked in, and they’ve all at some point run into the high 30 degrees,” he said. “I’ve seen chefs have dizzy spells, suffer exhaustion, I’ve seen people passing out. Some have even experienced extreme weight loss just from working in hot kitchens.”

Jules highlights too the affect such high temperatures have on workers’ mental health.

“There’ll be times in the height of summer when people work a 14-hour shift without a toilet break. Tempers flare up – everyone is grouchy and we fall out with each other. It’s very bad for morale.”

Unite member Guy, also a chef, likewise told UniteLive just how relentless the work can be in the heat of the kitchen.

“A colleague of mine one day brought these mini battery-operated fans in – it was almost ironic because they don’t make any difference,” he said. “This colleague wasn’t even working in pot wash or anywhere in the kitchen that had steam and he still looked as though he’d just stepped out of the shower – he was dripping in sweat.

“I live about a 25-minute walk from my workplace and sometimes the heat exhaustion is so bad I’ve had to call my dad to pick me up because I literally couldn’t walk.”

Both Jules and Guy have had to resort to creative measures to try to keep cool.

“We’ve had colleagues work by the dessert station just hoping that customers order a lot of ice cream, so they have an excuse to go into the big walk-in freezer,” Guy said.

Meanwhile, Jules recalls filling up big buckets of ice water “so that we can dip our heads in occasionally”.

‘If it eats into their profits, they just don’t want to know’

Raising the issue with management has often fallen on deaf ears, they report.

“I spoke to a manager once – he was drinking a glass of wine at the bar — and when I expressed my concerns about the heat, he told me with a straight face,‘If you can’t take the heat, then get out of the kitchen’, suggesting I wasn’t cut out for the industry. Managers don’t care because many have never worked in kitchens and they don’t understand what it’s like.”

Guy highlights that in many hospitality workplaces likes his, the venues are owned by large and highly profitable companies, where local managers essentially have their hands tied.

“There are many adjustments and repairs the company could make so that kitchen temperatures don’t get out of control, but they refuse to provide the funding so management can’t do anything about it,” he explained.

“Many plug points in our kitchen don’t work, which we could have used to plug in fans, but they won’t fund any repairs. We had a problem with the roof for months and it wasn’t until it literally collapsed that the company agreed to fix it. If it eats into their profits, they just don’t want to know.”

Jules noted that a common – and easily fixable – problem in commercial kitchens is broken or improperly maintained extractor fans.

“If they’re not cleaned properly because of grease buildup, it literally bakes in the kitchen. The heat just gets out of control because there’s no airflow. One chef told me their extractor fans completely broke down once and they were expected to carry on with the service.”

Both Jules and Guy strongly contested the notion, often spouted by management, that commercial kitchens are hot by their very nature – and that nothing can be done about it.

“Of course kitchens are a hot environment but there’s so much that can be done,” Jules said. “You could install aircon. You could institute more rest breaks. You could decide to not serve food during the hottest part of the day. Have we really got to the point where it’s acceptable for people to be passing out at work from the heat?”

Guy agreed, noting that he has in fact worked in kitchens that are freezing cold in the winter.

“There’s a difference between a hot kitchen and a kitchen that literally makes staff boil,” he said. “When people are getting injured, when their health is suffering, something has to be done about it.”

Health risks

Indeed, what Jules, Guy and other kitchen staff have witnessed may just be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ill health caused by working in excessive heat.

That’s because while not everyone will suffer, say, a heat stroke from working in a kitchen, being repeatedly exposed to excessive heat can cause or exacerbate health conditions later in life, including cardiovascular and chronic kidney disease.

What’s more, there’s been a proven link between excessive heat exposure and increased workplace injuries because of the effect it has on concentration – so what may on the surface seem like just another kitchen accident could in fact have been prevented if it weren’t so hot.

Jules points out that excessively hot kitchens aren’t just bad news for staff themselves – ultimately, it’s bad for business and customers too.

“When kitchens get ridiculously hot, the fridges and freezers start running high as well and you get food spoilage so it’s a food safety issue too,” he said. “And when you’re working such long hours in the heat, your work rate goes way down. We cannot provide the best service to customers when we’re working in those conditions.”

Maximum working temperature call

Jules and Guy both said that excessively hot kitchens will only get worse as the climate emergency accelerates. They also agreed that, in an industry plagued by poor working conditions, hospitality bosses won’t do anything about it – unless they’re forced to.

That’s why this week Unite is reiterating its call for a legal maximum working temperature. In the UK, while there is a legal minimum working temperature, there is absurdly no maximum legal limit, like there is many countries including Spain, Germany and China, as well as some states in the US, among others.

Alongside the TUC, Unite continues to lobby for an absolute maximum indoor temperature of 30C to indicate when work should stop, or 27C for those undertaking strenuous work. If temperatures get to 24C, there should also be a legal duty on employers to take action to make workers more comfortable.

Jules and Guy said a legal maximum working temperature would make a world of difference for kitchen staff.

“Just knowing that there are protections in place would give us peace of mind and make us feel safe in the knowledge that we won’t get ill from the heat,” Jules said.

Guy added, “Honestly, I think that’s really the only way things will change.”

Unite lead hospitality organiser Bryan Simpson said that while Unite continues to press for a legal maximum working temperature, the union is ramping up its efforts to organise within the sector and improve conditions for hospitality workers across the board.

Bryan recounted how in one case he supported, kitchen workers were left for nine months with broken air conditioning  because, he noted, “the employer claimed they could not afford the £2,000 to replace it – an amount which the company made per day from these workers”.

“We have scores of horror stories from members in kitchens up and down the country having to work in temperatures as high as 40C without aircon or even a fresh air supply,” he added. “The fact that workers in Britain can’t even rely on legislation which determines a maximum temperature is a national scandal which impacts over one million workers.”

Bryan pointed out that despite having to grapple with some of the most restrictive employment law in the world, American workers still have better legal protection against excessive temperatures in the workplace.

“In California, employers must ensure that workplaces are between 20- 25C indoors,” he said, adding that “this would feel like a fridge to most of the chefs and kitchen workers we represent.”

Bryan went on to say, “Unite’s message to this and any prospective government is simple: we need a maximum legal temperature now, or kitchens across the country will have no choice but to revolt, as we will be advising our members to exercise their legal rights under Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act, to refuse to work in a workplace which is too hot to work and thus represents a serious and imminent threat to health and safety.”

By Hajera Blagg