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UK union’s call for legal maximum temperature in workplaces may be ‘unworkable’

Out-Law News | 20 Jul 2022 | 3:54 pm | 2 min. read

Calls for the introduction of a legal maximum temperature for work in the UK amid a record-breaking heatwave would fail to address the real issue, according to one legal expert.

Zoe Betts of Pinsent Masons said the GMB Union’s proposals to prevent workers from working in temperatures of 25C or higher were “arbitrary, inflexible and unworkable in practice” given the “huge variety in roles” and differences between indoor and outdoor working environments. She added: “If the issue is a person’s welfare or safety, we should be focusing on ‘thermal comfort’ rather than simply on the air temperature.”

In the UK there are currently no legal limits on workplace temperatures, although the 1999 Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations highlight temperature as a potential hazard for employees. The approved code of practice states that the minimum temperature in a workplace should normally be at least 16C, or 13C if the work involves rigorous physical effort. These temperatures, however, are not legal requirements, though employers have a duty to determine and provide “reasonable comfort” in their workplaces.

The code of practice does not outline suggested maximum temperatures because of the differences between work environments such as offices and foundries. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) maintain that it is still possible to work safely at high temperatures, provided that appropriate controls are present.

Lynsey Mann, GMB health and safety officer, said: “This hot weather is great for being on a sun lounger – but if you’re trying to work through it’s no joke. Bosses need to do everything possible to keep workplaces cool, and more importantly, safe. This can be as simple as letting people wear more casual clothing and providing proper hydration.”

She added: “High levels of UV exposure also mean that outdoor workers have a much higher risk of developing skin cancer. Simply allowing more breaks and providing sun cream and protective clothing, such as hats with neck covers, can help reduce this risk. Ultimately there needs to be a legal maximum working temperature, in the same way we have a legal minimum working temperature. And it is in employer’s interests – workers who are overheating aren’t going to be at their best.”

GMB also called for workplace adjustments during heatwaves, including flexible working and travel arrangements, extra breaks, water access and flexible dress codes. It added that employers should invest in cooling or air conditioning systems and provide their workers with appropriate protective clothing. It comes as temperatures across the UK reached a record-breaking 39.1C earlier this week.

Betts said: “I agree that appropriate controls may be to offer additional water; cooling aids; flexible working arrangements; amended work patterns; extra breaks; sun cream and appropriate PPE. These controls, however, should be put in place after a robust, thorough risk assessment – which has long been a legal duty on employers – and do not need to be enshrined in additional legislation.”

Betts said that ‘thermal comfort’ was a more important factor for employers to consider than air temperature inside workplaces. She said: “Thermal comfort arises from a combination of environmental factors – such as hot weather or sources of heat in the workplace – personal factors – like a worker’s physical build – and work-related factors - like such as the strenuous nature of a job.”

She added: “In my opinion, the requirement to provide a ‘reasonable’ temperature, and the absence of a maximum level, rightly places the onus on the employer to do a suitable and sufficient risk assessment. This allows for complete flexibility to consider the type of work being undertaken, the environment, the nature of the workforce and other factors such as extreme weather conditions.”