With weather forecasters predicting the UK’s heatwave will last throughout July, what advice is there for employers and employees on working in a heatwave? Do employees have to stay in the office if a certain temperature is reached? Do they have to swelter in a suit or can dress codes be relaxed? And, with train tracks buckling in the heat causing widespread delays for commuters, how should employers respond?
Jo Stubbs, Head of Content at XpertHR looks at the legalities of working in a heatwave.
While Trade Unions are calling for the maximum workplace temperature to be set at 30°C for non-manual work and 27°C for manual work, there is no legal maximum working temperature in an office.
The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 say employers must maintain a reasonable temperature where you work, but do not specify a maximum temperature. There is a minimum recommended temperature of 16°C, or 13°C if your work involves considerable physical activity.
The Health and Safety Executive previously defined an acceptable zone of thermal comfort for most people in the UK as lying “roughly between 13°C (56°F) and 30°C (86°F), with acceptable temperatures for more strenuous work activities concentrated towards the bottom end of the range, and for more sedentary activities towards the higher end”. What is reasonable will depend on the nature of the workplace and the activities undertaken.
Jo Stubbs says, “It may surprise some workers there is no maximum temperature in the office. This is because some workplaces operate at extreme temperatures, such as foundries and glass factories. However, the Health and Safety Executive says that employers should consider six factors when deciding whether to keep people in the workplace. These include air temperature, radiant temperatures, air velocity, humidity, the clothing employees are expected to wear, and their expected work rate. Ultimately, the temperature at work should be “reasonable” when factoring in the type of workplace. If enough staff complain, bosses are obliged to carry out a risk assessment and then rectify the situation.”
Can employers enforce a dress code in the heat?
Many offices have a strict formal dress code, with business suits or smart jackets required during all working hours, men wearing ties and women allowed to wear a dress and jacket as an alternative to a suit.
Other workplaces require employees to wear a uniform always or protective clothing and equipment and some adopt a casual dress code, often with rules about certain clothes that are not permitted, such as trainers or ripped jeans.
Jo Stubbs says, “Employers can still enforce a dress code during a heatwave and potentially discipline or send home staff who refuse to follow the company dress code, provided they follow proper procedures. However, there is obviously a common sense approach to working in very high temperatures. To keep staff happy and productive, employers may relax their dress code temporarily, adding some stipulations about certain items not allowed such as beachwear, which would not be appropriate for the office.”
What advice is there for employers on handling employees who are late because of transport disruptions caused by the heat?
Jo Stubbs says, “Employers often ask us if they have to pay employees who arrive at work late for the missed time. However, unless there’s specific contractual provision for this, there’s no obligation on employers to pay employees who arrive late, even through no fault of their own. The onus is on employees to get to work and the obligation to pay under the contract of employment arises only where they are ready, willing and available for work. A failure to pay an employee in this situation is not an unlawful deduction of wages under the Employment Rights Act 1996, because there is no contractual right to any such payment.
“However, if employees are having problems getting to work due to public transport disruptions, many employers will try to make some accommodation for them. They may encourage more flexible working or working from home or allow employees to make any missed time up later. Another option might be for the parties to agree that any missed time will be taken as paid annual leave where the employee wishes to be paid for the time off.
“As a starting point, it’s useful for employers to have a policy on disruptions to public transport. This can help avoid inconsistent treatment as well as any confusion over the issue of payment. It can also set out the steps employees are expected to take to get into work at times like this.”