The Met office has issued extreme temperature warnings for the end of this week, and into next. It is important for employers to be prepared.
While no one can prevent such high temperatures, employers are under an obligation to mitigate the effect, where reasonably practical. And, with some news feeds predicting the heatwave could cause up to 2,000 deaths, such action is essential.
The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations, 1992, lay down particular requirements for most aspects of the working environment. Regulation 7 deals specifically with the temperature in indoor workplaces and states that:
‘During working hours, the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be reasonable.’
However, the application of the regulation depends on the nature of the workplace, such as a cold store, an office, a warehouse. Whilst the Workplace Regs do state that the lower working temperature in a normal working environment is best not to fall below 16 degrees Celsius, there is no upper temperature limit.
Everything has been complicated further this year by rising energy prices, meaning that in some offices, in particular, some employers may be loath to turn on the air-conditioning. Which for a week or two, could be a false economy.
Most properly considered workplace risk assessments will include provisions for extremes of temperature, either very high or very low. If they do not already do so, pull out your risk assessment and make sure that you have provided for such conditions. Also remember that everyone copes differently with heat, some lap it up while others wilt. Also, with high temperatures come high levels of pollen, so some people may really suffer from debilitating hay fever, even if they are normally able to manage the condition, so be aware of this too.
In addition, there are just some very practical steps that all employers can take.
- Ensuring access to drinking water for all employees, whether they work inside or outside.
- If normally only hot drinks are provided free of charge, purchase cold drinks and squashes to encourage people to stay hydrated.
- Where possible, provide shade for those working outside.
- Pulling down blinds and closing curtains where appropriate for those inside.
- Adequate protective equipment, particularly headgear, for those working in direct sun.
- Encouraging outdoor workers to use appropriate sun creams to protect themselves from long-term skin damage.
- Allow everyone to take slightly longer rest breaks if they feel that they are struggling with the heat.
- Adequate general ventilation (windows open to create an air flow) or air conditioning for those working inside.
- Relaxing clothing policies, particularly where staff are required to wear hot uniforms.
- Make sure those who have to wear PPE have regular breaks where possible.
- Allowing, where practical, different shift patterns for workers so they do not have to travel in the heat.
- Make sure that ice cubes are available in any canteen/rest room fridges for people to use.
- Allow more home working for those employees who can, and who feel their home working environment may be cooler and/or their journey into work by public transport would otherwise be really uncomfortable. Or whose hay fever means they would struggle to travel into work but may be able to do some work at home.
With climate change, scientists are predicting that such events will happen far more regularly in the future. It is best that employers remain prepared to protect their employees as much as possible for such eventualities.
As in all cases, it is the responsibility of employers to act reasonably and that may involve bending certain rules in such hot weather.
The guidance provided in this article is just that – guidance. Before taking any action, make sure that you know what you are doing, or call an expert for specific advice.