What are your rights when working in a heatwave?
MPs are pushing through legislation to address temperatures in British workplaces
image Shane Rounce
words Eve Walker
With heatwaves spreading and soaring across Europe, the UK is due to see worrying temperatures of 41C (106F). The Met Office has issued a Red Alert, warning that there is a danger to life, marking the first national emergency for high temperatures. 37 MPs have signed a motion for parliament to introduce legislation that would limit the temperature in workplaces to 30°C (or 27°C for those doing strenuous work). Employers would be legally required to control temperatures, whether that’s by installing ventilation or moving staff away from windows to protect employees from tiredness, infections, heat stroke and in some extreme cases, even death.
The plan has been tabled in the House of Commons by Labour’s Ian Mearns. It comes at a time of increasing pressure on the NHS – it has been reported that some operating theatres were forced to close as it was not possible to maintain the necessary temperatures.
Conservative MP Sir John Hayes has accused the country of being ‘frightened’ of the record-breaking heat, labelling people ‘cowards’ and ‘snowflakes’. Clearly, he is not serving pints in crowded pubs with no air con, or commuting on the central line for an hour.
With people being forced to go into unsafe work spaces amid the climbing temp, employees are left at risk. Vulnerable groups are even more susceptible to heat-related issues. With the rise of antidepressant usage in the UK, users also face a greater risk of dehydration. Then there’s elderly people, young children, disabled people, people from lower socio-economic groups who live in less ventilated homes, and anyone who doesn’t have the luxury of electing to work from home.
Currently, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) tells employers they need to keep the environment at a “reasonable” temperature for the “thermal comfort” (whether someone feels too hot or too cold) of employees.
Laws and worker’s rights in the UK when operating in a heatwave remain vague. “There are no maximum temperatures set in the UK that state employees must be sent home,” Michael Brown, a health and safety content manager at the advisory firm Citation, told the Guardian. “However, employers must ensure that they take reasonably practicable steps to ensure the welfare of their workers during high temperatures.”
If you're concerned about working in your current office or workspace during a heatwave, your employer has a duty of care to carry out a risk assessment. Ask about adapting uniform policies, and if that's not possible, ask how they will alternatively keep staff cool. Keep up with your union – many which are calling for such laws on max temperatures to be implemented – for more updates and information.
Heatwaves in the UK have been blamed for thousands of deaths in the past – in fact, the extreme heat in 2020 is thought to have caused 2,500 deaths alone. Many countries in Europe and north Africa have also been severely affected by heat waves. Western France has been hit with the warning of a "heat apocalypse" in 15 regions. From Greece to Morocco, thousands of people have been evacuated due to wildfires, and over 1000 deaths have been recorded due to the scorching heat in Portugal and Spain over the last few days. It’s a dire time for climate change – and we’ve a right to feel safe in our homes and places of work.
For many, simply not going into work will cause a severe loss of income. Amid a climate emergency, it is vital to implement ways to legally protect employees from high temperatures, especially when we can expect a lot more in the future.