Why it’s time to change the law on hot workplaces

Published date
23 Jul 2018
It’s against the law to transport livestock when it gets too hot, so why are workers still forced to toil in this heat?
Man suffers from heat in the office or at home
Millions of people are being forced to work in temperatures that are not only uncomfortable, but downright dangerous. Credit: Getty/humonia

This hot weather may be great for the beach, but it’s certainly not good for workers.

Right now, millions of people are being forced to work in temperatures that are not only uncomfortable, but downright dangerous.

This is because, while some workplaces are air-conditioned or cooled, many are not.

Post-war buildings with a high glass content such as schools or offices can get particularly stifling, but union health and safety representatives also report issues in manufacturing plants, catering establishments and warehouses.

And the biggest problems are often workplaces with a high proportion of low paid workers – sweatshops in more ways than one.

That’s why the TUC is calling for the law to change so that indoor workplaces cannot exceed a maximum temperature of 30°C (or 27°C for strenuous work), with employers forced to introduce cooling measures when the temperature hits 24°C.

The risks of hot workplaces

When the workplace gets too hot it’s more than just an issue of comfort.

If the temperature rises too much then it becomes a health and safety issue as well, because when people get too hot, they risk dizziness, fainting, or even heat cramps.

Working in the heat also leads to a loss of concentration and increased tiredness, which means workers are more likely to put themselves or others at risk.

High temperatures also mean an increased likelihood of accidents due to reduced concentration, slippery, sweaty palms or people ditching uncomfortable safety gear.

What can your employer do?

Hot workplaces are not inevitable – there’s a lot that employers can do, as the TUC guide to temperature shows.

Simple steps will often be effective, including fitting windows that can be opened, fans, moving staff away from windows or sources of heat or installing ventilation or air-cooling.

Setting a maximum workplace temperature would also ensure this issue was considered during the design stage for new buildings or during refurbishments.

So why isn’t this happening?

If there’s no reason for anyone to be working in temperatures in the 30s, why do so many employers do nothing to help workers in the hot weather?

In part because the Health and Safety Executive refuses to take action against employers who don’t act when the temperature is too hot.

The HSE lays down the minimum temperature for work yet refuses to set a maximum, despite repeated requests. It’s also said previously that:

“An acceptable zone of thermal comfort for most people in the UK lies roughly between 13°C (56°F) and 30°C (86°F), with acceptable temperatures for more strenuous work activities concentrated towards the bottom end of the range, and more sedentary activities towards the higher end.”

If the HSE can state what is acceptable, then why can they not make it a clear legal requirement for employers?

After all, there are maximum temperature requirements for transporting livestock, so why no maximum for workers spending eight hours or more in sweltering conditions?

Given that average temperatures are likely to increase over coming years due to global warming, this problem is likely to get worse.

But it’s also relatively easy to resolve - not by trying to control the weather, but by controlling the working environment or how we work.