• Gavin Bates
  • 19 July 2013

Too hot to handle

This week the TUC has called on employers to ‘do the sensible thing and temporarily relax workplace dress codes’, due to the warm weather we are facing in the UK at the moment, and the fact it is showing no signs of going anywhere. Normally we are complaining that we have no sun and now that it is here it seems it is causing problems, with reports of workplaces becoming ‘unbearably hot’.

The TUC has urged the HSE to introduce a new maximum legal temperature at work, and a group of MPs have tabled an Early Day Motion for workers to be sent home if temperatures reach 30°C, which it has in parts of London and the South East of England. In fact, it is so hot that the MET office has issued a level 3 warning, one short of a national emergency.

Whilst minimum legal temperatures exist for workplaces, there are currently no rules regulating a maximum temperature. Should there be? Current guidance advises that places of work should be kept at a ‘reasonable temperature’ but is this enough when ‘reasonable’ could mean one thing to one employer and something completely different to another? What about those workplaces that are always hot – industrial bakeries, or factories?

Are the proposals by the TUC reasonable, or is it unacceptable for staff to start donning shorts and t-shirts, and expecting their work environment to be cooled?

The Motion tabled by MPs argues that working in high heats can lead to a reduction in cognitive function, attention span and visual motor tracking, which could lead to higher rates of accidents.

Sending staff home would, therefore, seem like a logical course of action in order to protect the wellbeing of staff and the continuity of business. However, it doesn’t take a genius to realise what would happen if all businesses were to adopt this approach. If the heat wave were to last for a month, what would employers do then?

There are plenty of alternatives to consider for those who don’t have the luxury of air conditioning, such as sending employees home early, allowing them regular breaks, supplying cold drinking water, not asking employees to work during the hottest part of the day, providing shade or shelter if they are working outside (as well as sun protection), and so on.

Relaxing dress codes is another option, but only if it fits with the needs of the company, especially if the business is customer-facing. Businesses will have to decide if this is appropriate for their purposes.

Every worker and every workplace is different, so any regulations introduced would need to take this into account – and this is the key thing. All businesses and all individuals have different needs and businesses should be able to decide what is best for their company, through discussion with their staff. Blanket regulation is unlikely to work. Employees need to understand the business decisions that are made, and companies should understand the needs of their staff. This is best done through good communication. Let’s stay positive about the weather – it won’t last forever!