Hot weather at work: what are your responsibilities?

Man in hot weather at work

While many of us have welcomed the prolonged hot spell in the UK, it’s easy to undervalue the risks that come with the hot weather at work. While we always have the option to sit in the shade, grab a drink and cool off in our free time, many of us can feel pressured to overexert ourselves at our jobs, whether that’s in a hot office building or out on a building site.

One of the contributing factors to this is arguably the way the law on hot working environments works, with HSE guidelines stating that indoor temperatures must be “reasonable”. The ambiguity in this can be misinterpreted, but is designed to facilitate a varied to different working conditions. Read on below for some advice on dealing with hot weather at work, and when a workplace really is too hot to work in.

 

What is the maximum working temperature?

As a temperate country which rarely breaches the 30°C mark, the UK does not have a maximum working temperature enshrined in law. Instead, the HSE expects businesses to take a common sense approach to determining what is a “reasonable” temperature for their workplace. Where the temperature is not deemed to be reasonable, actions should be taken to mitigate the effects of hot weather at work.

For example, a workplace which normally operates at a higher working temperature than average – e.g. a bakery or foundry – would have a different baseline than an office, where equivalent temperatures might impact more on personnel. The same principle applies in reverse – you would not expect office workers to do long shifts in 3°C temperatures, but this would not be unusual for people working in food preparation and packing.

Hot weather may exacerbate this conditions however, and require some intervention. This is equally true of offices, where a lack of effective air conditioning could make it difficult to concentrate and cause heat stress. Ultimately, hot conditions are as much a productivity issue as a health issue, and it pays for employers to address them as swiftly as possible.

 

What can I do to control temperatures in the workplace?

If you’re indoors, the simplest answer to hot weather at work is to have effective air conditioning. This system should be capable of controlling the air temperature, and maintaining a comfortable climate for your employees. Such systems can be expensive and require regular maintenance to ensure proper functioning and air quality, but are by far the most efficient means of regulating temperatures.

If you cannot afford an air conditioning unit, there are other options to keep your workplace cool. Desk fans and standing units are less effective at circulating air, but are still a palatable option if you only need them sparingly. Dehydration is also a substantial risk, and has a tangible effect on performance. Providing chilled water with a fridge or water cooler and incentivising short breaks can improve people’s health, happiness and productivity.

The layout and makeup of your workplace may also be having an effect on temperatures. Consider moving desks closer to natural air currents from windows, removing clutter, and closing blinds to keep rooms from heating up in direct sunlight. Be careful with this approach, though, as indoor lighting can often give off a significant amount of heat. You may even want to think about changing shift patterns, and taking a ‘siesta’ in the middle of the day.

 

What are an employer’s responsibilities for working outside in the heat?

Working outdoors in strenuous conditions presents a much more present risk to your health, particularly in direct sunlight. Heat stress and exhaustion can quickly lead to heat stroke, a potentially deadly condition. As we often do not notice the signs of these conditions until they have taken hold, it is vital to prepare for working outside in hot conditions ahead of time.

While there is no maximum temperature for outside work either, employers still have the responsibility to plan for these temperatures, assess the risks, and enact changes to ensure the safety of all employees. A tragic example of the failure to plan and assess risks came in 2013, when the Ministry of Defence was found to have failed three Army reservists who died of heat exhaustion while training.

As an employer, you should make working in high and low temperatures a part of your risk assessment, and have a plan in place for when these conditions occur. For outside work, this may include the provision of lightweight protective clothing, sunglasses, bottled water, sunscreen and other equipment. It may also involve changes to shift patterns, reduced hours, and working practices designed to spread the physical burden of work among employees.

Provisions may also need to be made to give employees a chance to rest in hot weather at work. Setting up a shady area such as a canopy or other temporary structure will provide some shade for breaks, while an icebox can keep drinks cool in close proximity to the working area. Allowances meanwhile should be made for more frequent breaks, with employees not feeling under pressure to meet strict deadlines and push themselves beyond their limits.

 

How can I safely work in the heat?

Employees should find their needs accommodated for by their employer, and can voice their concerns and request special provisions if they feel it is necessary. However, there are also a few pointers for keeping cool that can apply to workers both inside and outside in hot weather.

One trick is wearing a damp shirt to work, keeping you cool as it dries off. Builders meanwhile can wear a damp rag around their forehead, or keep it under their helmet. You may also want to petition your employer to let you change your work attire, as long as this is in keeping with safety legislation. Shorts, dresses and breathable sportswear can all make a big difference, while formal environments can swap full suits for short sleeved shirts (and absolutely no ties).

Wide-brimmed hats are particularly good for protecting your head and neck from the sun, while UV protective clothing can be bought from many outdoor clothing shops. Sunglasses and sunscreen are also vital; you should ensure that the SPF value of the sunscreen is as high as possible, and that the sunglasses are genuinely UV protective, as some pairs bought online or from less reputable retailers are not UV certified.

The most important tip to protect yourself from hot weather at work is to stay hydrated. Recent evidence suggests that even mild dehydration inhibits brain function, causing us to lose concentration more easily and be slower to react to hazards. If you’re undertaking heavy physical labour or exercise, you should ideally aim to drink between two and four glasses of cool liquids every hour. In a normal working environment, you can usually dial this back to around ten glasses (just over two litres) each day.