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It’s getting hot in here - getting organised for safer, cooler working conditions

Published date
With rising temperatures becoming the norm in the UK, more needs to be done to protect workers from the risks of working in extreme heat.

Our planet is heating up, and so are our workplaces. This week we expect to see another heatwave throughout England and Wales, and every summer higher and higher temperatures are reported. Time in the sun can be enjoyable for many, but it also creates serious hazards at work.

It’s not just unions being hot-headed – in the worst cases, workers can die as a result of working in heat or sun exposure. This includes some of the most serious illnesses, including skin cancer and organ failure. What’s more, scientists have recently predicted that 40c temperatures in the UK are becoming more likely. Adaptions to work, to keep people safe, are not keeping up with the rise in temperatures.

Exhaustion and dizziness can increase the likelihood of other accidents due to reduced concentration. Glare from the sun can cause issues for drivers, while sweat can affect the use of personal protective equipment and the precision of the use of certain tools.

For workers with existing health conditions, high temperatures can make matters worse. For example those with high blood pressure, or those for whom their medication means they should avoid prolonged sun exposure. High temperatures are also dangerous during pregnancy.

Everyone has the right to work free from harm, and employers have a duty of care to protect workers from hazards in the workplace.

Here’s what reps can demand:

Working indoors

Even indoors, sun exposure remains a risk and there are practical steps employers can take to protect workers and help you keep your cool:

  • Insulating hot pipes.
  • Shading windows.
  • Providing fans and effective air conditioning systems.
  • Providing thermometers.
  • Use of anti-reflective glazing and films.
  • Ensuring display screen equipment does not produce uncomfortable heat.
  • Relaxing dress codes where uniforms or business dress is required.
  • Workplace redesign to move people away from windows.
  • Adjusting shifts to avoid travel on busy, hot public transport.

Workplace regulations do state that employs must consider heat and sun exposure when designing new buildings.

Working outdoors

For those working mainly outdoors whether in construction, agriculture, postal services or other sectors, prolonged heat and sun exposure poses serious risks. Outdoor work is thought to be the main cause of 4,500 cases of skin cancer each year alone.

Dehydration, heatstroke and dizziness are also risks associated with working outdoors in hot weather.
Applying sunscreen – as important as it is – is not enough. Even then, it ought to be provided by an employer, and not be each individual worker’s responsibility.

Other measures reps can negotiate include:

  • Adjusting shifts and introducing regular breaks. Depending on the type of work, changes can be made to avoid outdoors work taking place during the hottest months, days or times of day (generally 11:00 – 15:00).
  • Provision of protective canopies or coverings and shaded spaces for breaks.
  • Provision of sunscreen (preferably at least factor 30 and with UVA protection).
  • Supplying cool water.
  • Personal protective equipment: lightweight, long-sleeve clothing, lightweight hats. Where specialist PPE is required to avert other safety hazards, this must be designed to ensure they are still as comfortable as possible in hot weather.
  • Introducing occupational health screenings and guidance to check for signs of skin cancer.

You have a legal right to the provision of water and free protective equipment – it’s not a choice for an employer to make.

All workers

Heat and sun exposure should be included in workplace risk assessments – a process any employer must legally carry out. All work-related illness associated with hot weather and sun exposure should be identified as risks, with a clear outline of the action plan to mitigate against each risk.

The Health and Safety Executive’s thermal comfort checklist and heat stress checklist provide a useful basis for reps negotiating with employers.

There is still no legal maximum working temperature, however there is scientific evidence showing that certain temperatures create optimal working conditions both for health and productivity.

The Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers recommends the following temperatures for different working areas:

  • Heavy work in factories: 13°C
  • Light work in factories: 16°C
  • Hospital wards and shops: 18°C
  • Offices and dining rooms: 20°C

When temperatures get above 24°C and workers feel uncomfortable, employers should attempt to reduce temperatures.

Getting organised

The best examples of employers taking heat and sun risks seriously are where workers have come together collectively to call for change. While we still need the law to change on maximum temperatures, there are legal obligations on employers, and power in our trade unions to demand safety measures to protect our members.

Download our guide on dealing with high temperatures in the workplace, find out more about organising for health and safety at work and sign the petition calling for a maximum working temperature.

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