CIPD: Employers may be required to take action if employees complain that it’s too hot to work. The current summer heatwave has renewed the debate about safe working temperatures, and the indications are that climate change will bring more frequent episodes of extreme weather, leading the UK to experience more hot spells.
Current legal position
It is a common misconception that the law currently provides for a minimum workplace temperature. In fact, the law does not set either a minimum or a maximum temperature for workplaces. The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 specify that the temperature in all indoor workplaces should “provide reasonable comfort”. How the regulations are applied depends on the nature of the workplace. What is reasonable in one workplace (for example, a restaurant kitchen) may not be in another (say, a supermarket cold store).
Employers should be aware of the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) Approved Code of Practiceand guidance on the regulations. The code defines a reasonable temperature indoors as being at least 16°C, or 13°C where strenuous physical work is involved, and although the code does not provide specific guidance on maximum temperatures, the guidance suggests an “acceptable zone of thermal comfort” lies between 13°C and 30°C. These temperatures are not absolute legal requirements – the duty on employers is to ensure that a workplace temperature is reasonable in the particular circumstances.
What should employers do if a workplace dispute arises out of complaints about unacceptable temperatures? The HSE currently advises employers to conduct a thermal comfort risk assessment if a certain percentage of their workers complain of being either too hot or too cold. In air-conditioned offices the HSE recommends undertaking a risk assessment if more than 10 per cent of employees complain, and in a naturally ventilated office if 15 per cent complain. This increases to 20 per cent for retail businesses, warehouses and factories. The HSE suggests employers consult with employees, evaluate the risks posed by the workplace, monitor the results, and take action to reduce thermal discomfort.
The TUC has for some time argued that setting an upper temperature limit is vital to ensure employees are in a safe working environment. It recommends a maximum temperature 30°C (or 27°C for those doing strenuous work). If a maximum workplace temperature was imposed by law along these lines, it would fundamentally change the requirements on employers to provide a safe working environment for their employees. Employers would need to adopt clear systems to monitor thermal comfort and review workplace ventilation.
If a maximum working temperature was to be imposed, it is likely to lead to an increased number of HSE prosecutions as a result of employers’ failures to manage high temperatures in the workplace. Thermal comfort risk assessments could become a mandatory requirement, if certain trigger factors were satisfied, and employers would need to identify vulnerable employees who may be more adversely affected by extremes of temperature, such as disabled or less experienced employees.
HR departments may need to review internal complaints procedures and workplace policies to ensure complaints regarding workplace temperature are properly dealt with. It is also likely that employers would need to adopt more flexible working arrangements if their workplace exposed employees to high temperatures, such as relaxing dress codes, moving employees’ work stations away from heat sources, and re-evaluating the requirement for personal protective equipment to be worn.