Skip to main content

What are Employers’ obligations during a heatwave?


It doesn’t happen often in the UK that we have weather extremes, so perhaps it isn’t a surprise that employers responsibilities when the temperature goes up or down significantly are unfortunately rather vague. Whilst employees have a right not to work in temperatures below 16 degrees C (or 13 degrees if the role involves physical activity) the position when the mercury goes up is altogether different. There is no maximum temperature for workplaces; the law, according to Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 is simply that employers must make sure indoor workplaces are at a “reasonable” temperature. What is or is not reasonable will obviously depend on the workplace itself. That said, heat is considered to be a hazard, and managing a hazard does at least place some obligations on both employees and employers – albeit more in terms of guidance than legal requirements.

Contact the Author(s)

Employees need to ensure that they take care of their own health and safety and that of others who may be affected by their actions at work. This means not placing themselves at unnecessary risk and also seeking to ensure they are also taking sensible measures in hot weather; using fans, staying hydrated etc. When temperatures rise, employers best practice is to make a suitable assessment of the risks to the health and safety of employees and take action. However, this is only action where necessary and reasonably practicable. The law says employers MUST carry this risk assessment out when a “significant number” of employees complain – which is not exactly helpful. Thermal comfort risk assessments measure the environmental conditions of a workplace in relation to the potential damage to the health and safety of employees. They often don’t require significant adjustments by employers to make substantial differences. Many employers actually undertake these as a matter of course, rather than waiting to be asked by overheating employees.

The various things employers can do to assist thermal comfort in the workplace, include:

  • ensuring windows that open are opened, fans are provided to promote local cooling and radiators can be switched off or air conditioning units are maintained
  • introducing work systems to limit heat exposure, such as flexible hours or early/late starts to help avoid the worst effects of working or travelling in high temperatures
  • relaxing formal dress codes
  • insulating hot machinery or pipes
  • turning off unnecessary machinery (photocopiers in offices etc)
  • moving workstations away from direct sunlight
  • direct employees who show signs of heat exhaustion to immediately stop and rest (without loss of pay)
  • ensuring employees stay hydrated.

Unions have been pushing for legislation to cover then it would be considered too hot to work; this campaign has been backed by some MPs, but Parliament is yet to respond. The suggestion is that an upper legal limit should be 30 degrees (or 27 degrees where the employees are engaged in strenuous work). Presently however, employees have no right to not work because it is too hot and employers obligations are not set in stone; but only that they have “a legal and moral duty to ensure workers’ health is not damaged by extremely hot weather,” but that’s as far as it goes – for now. Perhaps the current heatwave in England will give the campaign the impetus it has been lacking with the recent spate of soggy, temperate summers.

Share this article

Contact the Author(s)