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How to survive a heatwave in the workplace - keep cool and carry on

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A sweltering British summer, whilst a rare and welcome event, can leave employers and employees alike feeling hot under the collar.

The BBC reported that a hospital porter, who had rolled his polyester trousers to ¾ length in an effort to cool down whilst at work, is facing disciplinary action from his employer, Medirest, for failing to “wear appropriate uniform at all times”.

Striking a balance between a more relaxed dress code to accommodate extreme weather conditions and the maintenance of professional standards presents a challenge.

Although recent temperatures didn’t break national temperature records many of us did not find the high temperatures and humidity very comfortable. We are told to expect further prolonged heatwaves this summer.

So, what measures can we take to keep cool and carry on?

An employer’s duties

The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 set out the employer’s legal obligation to provide a 'reasonable' temperature in an indoor workplace.

Additionally, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 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.

Whether your employees work indoors or outdoors, employers should have a risk assessment for the health and safety of their employees to assess and control risks in the workplace. The workplace temperature is a potential hazard that employers should address.

Indoor working

The law does not state what the maximum temperature should be in a workplace but an employer does have a duty to determine what reasonable comfort will be in the circumstances. You may choose to adopt a more casual approach to dress during the warm summer days but this may depend on the nature of your business. Some employers may require staff to wear business dress all year, for example sales representatives who meet with clients will need to maintain a certain standard. More informal clothing can carry its own potential health and safety risks too. For instance, some employers may have a "no flip flop" policy, as a health and safety precaution, but any restrictions should be clearly set out in your organisation's policy.

Given these potential issues, it may be preferable to consider alternative approaches to ensuring employees’ comfort in hot weather that avoid the dress code dilemma, such as the control of air conditioning.

Outdoor working

When working outdoors, the effects of the weather in the UK environment can potentially have a serious impact on an employee's health if the risks have not been considered or properly managed. This impact may be immediate or it may occur over a longer period and may not be instantly apparent.

In hot weather, an employer may want to introduce some simple administrative controls, for example:

  • reschedule work to cooler times of the day
  • provide more frequent rest breaks and introduce shading to rest areas
  • provide free access to cool drinking water
  • introduce shading in work areas
  • encourage the removal of personal protective equipment when resting to help encourage heat loss
  • educate workers about recognising the early symptoms of heat stress

In addition to temperature, employers must consider the damage that the sun can cause to employees both in the short and long terms. Too much sunlight is harmful to skin and can cause skin damage, including sunburn, blistering and skin ageing and, in the long term, may lead to an increased risk of skin cancer. Whilst a tan gives the wearer a health appearance, it is a sign that the skin has been damaged. Providing employees with high factor skin protection and reminding them to reapply it or encouraging the wearing of hats with neck coverage are good solutions.

Treating your employees to an ice cream on a hot day is great but is not sustainable in the long term.  

Given predicted global warming, these prolonged spells of hot weather are something all employers will have to recognise, risk manage and plan for in the future. However, with the application of a common-sense approach – and perhaps some factor 40, your workplace will be able to withstand a heatwave.