Temperature guidance: Is it ever 'too hot' to work?

  • Health & Safety
Too hot to work
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Peninsula Team, Peninsula Team

(Last updated )

In many workplaces, working in high temperatures is an issue all year round. However, as we approach British summertime, every workplace faces an increased risk of heat stress.

Presently, there's no law for maximum working temperature, or when it's too hot to work, because every workplace is different. Health and safety law is not prescriptive for this very reason. The law rarely (if ever) says that every workplace must control risks in the same way, because every industry and every sector experiences and handles risks differently.

In many indoor workplaces, there is no meaningful upper limit. High temperatures aren’t seasonal but created by work activity, such as in bakeries or foundries. If you imposed a 30°C or even 27°C limit in a glassblowing foundry, nobody would be able to go near the furnace.

Let’s take a more reasonable workplace to keep cool – an office. It’s a baking hot summer’s day, the temperature outside is in the high 20s or even the low 30s. We had a seven-day heatwave in September 2023 in the UK where it was over 30°C, so it’d be no surprise if it was as hot or hotter this year.

So, how does the law protect workers from excess heat? Employers’ responsibilities are set out in the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992. The regulations say the temperature at the workplace must be appropriate for the work activity taking place.

Employers must consider the effect of wearing a uniform or protective clothing required for the job, whether the work is sedentary, and whether there are radiant heat sources, or humidity. There is no maximum temperature specified in the regulations – but that does not mean that any temperature is acceptable.

Risk assessment is the key tool for employers to use to determine what is appropriate for their workplace. At very high or uncomfortable temperatures, employers can ensure people are comfortable with a range of control measures, including:

  •   Providing desk, pedestal or ceiling fans
  • Installing air-cooling or air-conditioning and adequate ventilation
  •   Shading employees, using blinds or reflective film on windows
  •   Positioning workstations away from direct sunlight or sources of heat
  •   Insulating hot pipes or plant equipment
  •   Providing cold water dispensers for hydration

Employers can also reorganise the work arrangements to ease the discomfort of excess heat. This includes flexible working patterns (e.g. job rotation) so workers can move to cooler parts of the building where possible. They can increase frequency of breaks, so workers can get drinks to cool down. Dress codes can also be relaxed, so uncomfortable clothing doesn’t exacerbate heat stress.

In some cases, the law specifies a standard you should achieve. In others, the law only sets you a target. Employers must determine for themselves what is ‘reasonably practicable’ in order to comply. ‘Reasonably practicable’ means weighing a risk against the time, trouble and money needed to control it. This is the legal standard all employers are held to in the UK, and they can face prosecution or civil claims if they fail to meet it.

Employers must eliminate or reduce foreseeable risks. Excess heat, as we’ve established, is an entirely foreseeable risk. This is an issue employers will have to address every year, so it’s reasonably practicable to expect arrangements to be in place to manage the risk.

The risk assessment process includes consulting with employees; they’re not shut out of this conversation by any means. If employees believe their workplace temperature isn’t reasonable, they should be able to discuss their concerns with their employer and suggest alternative ways to control the risk. 

Some have proposed introducing a specific maximum indoor working temperature law to address the problems the UK faces in summer months. These problems are systemic, but when we already have specific legislation addressing welfare and the work environment, the solution isn’t necessarily more legislation, but better enforcement for the present framework, and resources to enact it.

The government cut funding for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) by 43% over the last decade or so, and they have seen a 35% staff reduction since 2010. This severely limits their ability to enforce health and safety law on the scale that’s needed.

Climate change policy commitments have also been significantly scaled back, meaning the phasing out of gas boilers and petrol / diesel cars have been pushed back.

To address a hotter climate, we need to focus on the causes. Scientists point to better insulation, and less emissions. That’s for the government to lead by example on. To address workplaces too hot to work in and employers who can’t or won’t manage the risks, enforcing existing legislation sends a clear message: there are rules in place already, and they apply to everyone.

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