Skip To The Main Content
20 July 2006

FSB issues guidance on how to cope with heat wave at work

Reference number: PR 2006 70

FSB News Release

PR/2006/70

Issue date:  Thursday 20 July 2006

FSB issues guidance on how to cope with heat wave at work

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) today issued guidance to employers to help them cope with the unique situation in the workplace that has arisen from the current heat wave across the UK.

With a lack of clarity around what to do in the hot weather, including whether air conditioning is acceptable or if dress codes should be modified, this guidance is provided to help prevent any work place strife because of the heat wave, ensuring good weather does not lead to bad working relationships.

Employers do have a duty to ensure that work temperatures are reasonable but, unlike the minimum working temperature for work in cold weather, there is no upper limit in law when work must stop.  This could lead to disputes at work between bosses and staff if it is not handled properly.  Absenteeism could also be a problem for firms and it is vital that this is addressed through the normal disciplinary and annual leave procedures.

Mary Boughton, FSB National Health and Safety Chairman, said:

“Good employers know that they have to take care of their staff and gladly do so to ensure a good working relationship and a successful business.  Small firms are much better at achieving this because the boss knows their staff personally and works alongside them in the same conditions.

“In many businesses the hot weather has boosted sales but it is important that firms take effective measures to make work comfortable and prevent absenteeism so that the firm can continue to operate without interruption or disputes.

“With fans and air conditioning available to buy or rent at very competitive prices this is an option that many businesses will choose to take.  In public-facing or manufacturing roles it may not be practical to relax the dress code.  However, solutions are available to every type of business and we hope that this advice will assist our members in finding the right way forward for them.”

THE LEGAL IMPLICATIONS OF THE SUMMER HEAT WAVE

With temperatures this summer already soaring to record highs, employers need to consider what steps they should take to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees in the event of a heat wave.  Extreme heat is dangerous and, in fact, can be fatal.  In addition, some employees may decide that sunbathing in the garden is far more preferable to being at work, so might be tempted to either phone in sick or simply fail to turn up for work on hot and sunny days.  This guidance note addresses both issues.
Health and safety issues

Extreme heat can cause heat exhaustion and heatstroke, not to mention sunburn if employees work outdoors.  There is currently no legal maximum temperature above which employees should not have to work.  The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 simply state that: ‘during working hours, the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be reasonable’.  Employers also have a common law and a statutory duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees and they should therefore be flexible in their approach to issues such as dress codes and rest breaks (particularly where the work is strenuous) during periods of soaring temperatures.  The actual wording of Health and Safety Law is provided at the end of this briefing.

Recognising heat exhaustion and heat stroke

Heat exhaustion is usually one of the first signs that someone is at risk of developing heatstroke.  Symptoms include headaches, dizziness, vomiting, muscle cramps and spasms, pale skin, weak pulse and high temperature.  Heatstroke can develop if the symptoms of heat exhaustion are left untreated.  It can also occur suddenly and without warning.  Symptoms include disorientation, convulsions, loss of consciousness, racing pulse, flushed and hot skin and very sudden rise in temperature.  Heatstroke can result in organ failure, brain damage or even death.
 
Taking necessary action

With many offices having the benefit of air conditioning or cooling systems, those employers can easily ensure that their employees keep sufficiently cool (although any system should be regularly maintained to make sure that it is working properly and so that it does not break down in a heat wave).  However, for those employees who work in workplaces without air conditioning or who work outside, employers will need to take extra precautions.  Steps employers should consider taking include:

• Checking that windows can be shaded from direct sunlight (with blinds, curtains or by putting reflective film on them) and can be easily opened.
• Moving desks and workstations away from windows, direct sunlight and other objects that radiate heat, such as machinery.
• Installing air conditioning and regularly maintaining it.
• Renting mobile air conditioning or air cooling units.
• Installing thermometers to accurately monitor temperatures throughout the workplace.
• Installing ceiling fans.
• Ensuring that there is an adequate supply of desk and pedestal fans and water sprays.
• Ensuring that a plentiful supply of cold drinking water or other cool drinks is available, for example using portable cold water dispensers or vending machines.
• Encouraging employees to drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.
• Advising employees to avoid caffeine or very sweet drinks.
• Temporarily relaxing any formal dress code for all staff (both male and female) – for example, by permitting smart, casual or light, loose fitting clothes to be worn rather than suits and ties.  Note that personal protective equipment should still be provided and used if required.
• Permitting more rest breaks to be taken during the working day to enable employees to get cold drinks or cool down.
• Encouraging employees to take their rest breaks in the shade if they wish to go outside, particularly at lunch time.
• Introducing a flexitime system, so that employees can come in earlier or work later to avoid the rush hour commute in sweltering temperatures.
• Limiting the amount of physical, strenuous work during hot spells.
• Identifying those employees who are most at risk, for example because they have medical conditions that might be exacerbated by excessive heat or because they are pregnant and discussing with them any particular precautionary measures that could be taken to protect them on an individual basis.  Medical advice should be sought if necessary.
• Providing sun protection advice and high factor sun cream (SPF 15 or above) for employees who work outdoors, such as builders, to protect them from sunburn and skin cancer and/or requiring them to ‘cover up’ by wearing long-sleeved t-shirts and hats with a brim or flap that protects the ears and neck during hot periods.

Of course, employers cannot reasonably be expected to implement every single one of the above recommendations, but the more safety precautions that employers take against hot and sunny weather conditions, the happier their staff will be and the lower will be the risk of a personal injury claim being brought as a result of heat or sun stroke.

Dealing with absenteeism

Nobody wants to be stuck in the office when temperatures are soaring over 30 degrees.  A small minority of less scrupulous employees may be tempted to either phone in sick on hot and sunny days or simply not turn up for work at all.  The golden rule here is to try and take action to prevent this happening in the first place. 

The starting point is to issue staff with a memorandum which sets out your policy on staff absence over the hot summer months.  Make it clear that unauthorised absence (i.e. simply failing to report for work) is a disciplinary offence and disciplinary action will be taken against them under the terms of your disciplinary procedure.  This could amount to potential gross misconduct, rendering the employee liable to summary dismissal.  If employees want time off to enjoy the hot weather, provide that they need to book any annual leave in advance in accordance with your usual holiday booking procedure.  If you normally require employees to give a period of notice to take annual leave (such as two weeks’ notice), consider being more flexible about the taking of odd days off by employees during the summer. 

If an employee phones in sick in circumstances where you suspect the sickness absence is not genuine but is simply a ruse to take advantage of the nice weather, you need to tread more carefully.  You will need good evidence to challenge the employee’s assertion that he or she was too ill to attend for work.  For example, if the employee was spotted sunbathing in the local park when they are supposed to be off with a bad headache or food poisoning, you will be on stronger ground to challenge the sickness absence than a mere gut instinct that the employee is malingering.  If necessary, watch for absence trends – does the employee always phone in sick when the weather is hot and sunny?

 
Health and Safety law

The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 lay down particular requirements for most aspects of the working environment.
Regulation 7 deals specifically with the temperature in indoor workplaces.
However, it does not stipulate a maximum temperature.

Regulation 7 states:

''(1) During Working hours, the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be reasonable.''
(1A) Without prejudice to the generality of paragraph (1) -

a) a workplace shall be adequately thermally insulated where it is necessary, having regard to the type of work carried out and the physical activity of the persons carrying out the work; and
b) excessive effects of sunlight on temperature shall be avoided;

The associated Approved Code of Practice requires that, ''The temperature in workrooms should provide reasonable comfort without the need for special clothing,'' and also states that:

''The temperature in workrooms should normally be at least 16 (60.8°F) degrees Celsius unless much of the work involves severe physical effort in which case the temperature should be at least 13 (56°F) degrees Celsius.''

Where the temperature in a workroom would otherwise be uncomfortably high, for example because of hot processes or the design of the building, all reasonable steps should be taken to achieve a reasonably comfortable temperature, for example by:

(a) insulating hot plants or pipes;
(b) providing air-cooling plant;
(c) shading windows;
(d) siting workstations away from places subject to radiant heat.

Where, despite the provision of local cooling, workers are exposed to temperatures which do not give reasonable comfort, suitable protective clothing and rest facilities should be provided.  Where practical there should be systems of work (for example, task rotation) to ensure that the length of time for which individual workers are exposed to uncomfortable temperatures is limited.

The HSE also publish a guidance publication entitled Thermal Comfort in the Workplace which states the following:

''An acceptable zone of thermal comfort for most people in the UK lies roughly between 13°C (56°F) and 30°C (86°F), with acceptable temperatures for more strenuous work activities concentrated towards the bottom end of the range, and more sedentary activities towards the higher end.''

With regards to working in hot weather the guidance states:

You can help ensure thermal comfort in hot weather by:

(a) putting insulating material around hot machinery or pipes;
(b) providing air-cooling or air-conditioning equipment;
(c) providing fans, e.g. either desk, pedestal or ceiling-mounted fans;
(d) ensuring that windows can be opened;
(e) shading windows with blinds or using reflective film to reduce the heating effect of the sun;
(f) siting workstations away from direct sunlight and places or machinery that radiate heat;
(g) providing additional facilities, e.g. cold water dispensers (water is preferable to caffeine or carbonated drinks);
(h) introducing work systems to limit exposure, such as flexible working patterns, e.g. early start/finish times;
(i) allowing sufficient breaks to enable employees to get cold drinks or to cool down;
(j) relaxing formal dress codes, but you must ensure that personal protective equipment is provided and used if required.