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Too hot to handle? What does the law say on employee rights and temperature in the workplace?

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The recent heatwave that has struck Britain may have started to subside, but with temperatures still around 20°c and humidity at 90% questions concerning employees’ rights in hot temperatures are still circling. It might not happen often, but when Britain bakes in soaring temperatures, or even freezes in chilly conditions, what does the law say on employee rights?

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 and states that: ‘During working hours, the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be reasonable.’

The law does not state a minimum or maximum temperature, but the ‘reasonable’ temperature in workrooms should normally be at least:

  • 16°C or
  • 13°C if much of the work involves rigorous physical effort

It is difficult to put laws in place defining an exact workplace temperature due to the differing nature of workplace environments, such as a bakery, a cold store, an office or a warehouse. A meaningful maximum figure cannot be given due to the high temperatures found in, for example, glass works. In such environments it is still possible to work safely provided appropriate controls are present. Factors other than air temperature, such as radiant temperature, humidity and air velocity, become more significant and the interaction between them become more complex with rising temperatures. These temperatures are not absolute legal requirements - the employer has a duty to determine what "reasonable comfort will be" in the particular circumstances.

Employers must stick to health and safety at work law, including:

  • Keeping the temperature at a comfortable level
  • Providing clean and fresh air

If a significant number of employees are complaining about thermal discomfort, an employer should carry out a risk assessment, as per the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, which require employers to make a "suitable assessment" of the risks to the health and safety of their employees and take action "where necessary and where reasonably practicable".

Some believe that there is an inconsistency in the law and that there should be statute in place such as help being offered to employees to cool down if temperatures soar above 30C or 27C if they do "strenuous" work. There is an argument that statutory maximum working temperature would secure better working conditions for those in offices, schools, shops, bakeries, call centres and elsewhere - plus protect them from potential health problems.

The difficulty with this is trying to define what work types are ‘strenuous’ and what types of work would qualify as requiring ‘rigorous physical effort’. It is also the case that temperatures will fluctuate between individuals in that same workplace meaning not every employee will feel the same way. It seems unlikely that any statutory limits will be imposed in relation to maximum workplace temperatures due to the impractical task of giving definitions to the above, besides, the number of days a year in which the weather actually reaches these exceptional levels in the UK is indeed far and few between.

By Anna Blythe, new business advisor in the employment law team.

Comments1

    • Air conditioning for computers not employeesBill Dormer
    • Posted

    In my experience air conditioning can be installed not primarily for the comfort of employees, but to keep the computers used in design cool. Whilst individual employees might make personal protest, the majority will pull on a sweater or fleece. In winter heating systems can be timed to come on at the start of the working week, but not provide effective heat until well in to the Monday afternoon. In my experience employees tend to live with such swings in office temperature, rather than tackle the problem with their employers. The most angst is often caused between employees when someone opens a window to let some fresh air in!