Working in the heatwave: your rights at work

A very hot man sweating in front of a fan

With UK temperatures set to exceed 40 degrees in the coming days, many of us will be working in excessive heat. Here we consider what your rights at work are during the heatwave.

Excessive heat can affect our concentration, blood pressure, and heart rate as well as increase the risk of dizziness, skin damage, fainting and dehydration. Some are more at risk than others, such as the elderly, pregnant women, menopausal women, or those with underlying conditions such as diabetes or heart disease.

The Health and Safety Executive tells us that employers should keep the working environment at a “reasonable temperature” for the “thermal comfort” of their employees. The law provides minimum temperatures for a workplace (in an office it is 16 degrees), however the law does not specify a maximum temperature when it becomes too hot to work. Some trade unions are calling for a maximum to be set, and as global warming increases the risk of excessive temperatures year on year, perhaps this is something we can expect to see in the future.

In the meantime, if you and your colleagues consider that your working environment is too hot, you should act collectively, with the assistance of your trade union, to demand that the employer carry out a workplace risk assessment regarding the temperature at work. The employer should act on that risk assessment and ensure that the risks identified are addressed. Such action would depend on the particular circumstances of the workplace, but could include:

  • Altering start and finish times to avoid the peak temperatures.
  • Providing free access to cool drinking water.
  • Relaxing any formal dress codes.
  • Allowing staff to work from home.
  • Allowing staff who work outside to work indoors or provide sun cream and hats.
  • Providing air conditioning, fans and heat blocking blinds and curtains.
  • Allowing staff to have more frequent breaks.

Am I protected in law if I leave work or refuse to attend work because I am too hot?

In sum, not necessarily. If you and your colleagues are too hot at work, your priority should be to notify the employer and insist that they act to reduce the risks.

Sections 44 and 100 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 state that where a worker reasonably believes that they are in serious and imminent danger and they cannot reasonably be expected to avert that danger, they have the right not be dismissed or subject to detriment (such as wage docking) if they leave or refuse to attend work while the danger persists. The wording of these statutes does not give an absolute right to withdraw your labour if you consider the workplace is too hot. Although sections 44 and 100 may be helpful to agitate industrially, there is no guarantee that should you leave site or refuse to attend work and then be dismissed or subject to detriment, that you would have a legal remedy, or be successful at tribunal.

What about my uniform?

Although an employee can compel you to wear a certain uniform or abide by a dress code, depending on the circumstances of your workplace, it may be reasonable for an employer to relax formal dress code policies to reduce the risk of excessive heat. This, however, is unlikely to extend to the removal of personal protective equipment.

I have an underlying condition and I am worried about working the heat, what should I do?

You should notify your employer of your underlying condition and ask that they take that into consideration in a person specific risk assessment. If your condition amounts to a disability in law, the employer may be obliged to make reasonable adjustments for you in the workplace.

If you require any advice on working in the heatwave, please do not hesitate to make contact with us.

Email Alice Bowman
Call our employment law team free on 0808 560 0872
Arrange a callback by using our enquiry form

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