With the heatwave in full swing, some workers may be finding the heat unbearable. But what should your employer do to help?
How hot is my workplace allowed to be?
There is no set maximum. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) used to say that “an acceptable zone of thermal comfort for most people in the UK lies roughly between 13°C (56°F) and 30°C (86°F)”, but it now just states that “during working hours, the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be reasonable”.
However, an early day motion took place in Parliament on 15 July 2013, which suggested a maximum working temperature of 30C or 27C for those doing strenuous work, rather than leaving it for employers to interpret that uncertain level of ‘reasonable’. This motion was signed by 27 MPs.
What is reasonable can vary: if you work in a kitchen it will be very different from if you work in a cold store. But the HSE does have a defined measure of at what point an employer needs to investigate workplace temperatures – if your office is air conditioned your employer must assess things if 10% of staff complain; for non-air conditioned offices the figure is 15%; and for shops and warehouses 20% of staff need to make a complaint.
The TUC has been campaigning for a legal maximum temperature for some years – it believes it should be set at 27°C where people are involved in strenuous work, and 30°C for all other employment. The organisation’s head of health and safety, Hugh Robertson, says it is “absolutely ridiculous” there is no set limit. It is down to local authorities and the HSE to enforce the current “reasonable” rule and no action has yet been taken. Robertson says: “We can’t sue an employer unless someone has a stroke or dies of heatstroke.”
Does my employer have to provide air conditioning?
No, but Robertson says sensible employers will use mobile air-conditioning units and fans to keep workers cool. “An employer with a brain will know they are not going to get the best out of their employees if they are too hot,” he says.
Can my boss force me to keep wearing a tie?
Yes. Employers are allowed to tell their workers to dress in a particular way in the workplace, regardless of what the weather is like outside. This might be written in your contract or an employee handbook, or you may have been instructed when you started your job.
Men in the workplace may feel a bit hard done by if they have to keep wearing a tie while their female counterparts can feel a cooling breeze around their necks, but employers can justify requiring different dress requirements for men and women.
In Department of Work and Pensions v Thompson , the Employment Appeals Tribunal said that requiring men to wear a collar and tie did not necessarily amount to sex discrimination if that was the only way of achieving equal levels of smartness for men and women. This may not apply in every case and prudent employers would normally have a policy in place if they wanted to insist their male staff should wear a collar and tie.
Can my boss force me to wear a uniform even if it’s hot outside?
Again, yes. Employers must consider objections from employees at having to follow a required dress code, but it seems citing the weather is unlikely to cut much ice. In many sectors where there are customer-facing roles, such as retail or the travel industry, uniforms promote a corporate identity and professional image. Employers will find it much easier to justify a dress code in these circumstances, even in hot weather where lower cut tops and more informal dress would be the clear preference of those battling through an oppressive work environment.
Does my employer have to provide me with cold water to drink?
Your employer is legally obliged to provide you with drinking water. This does not have to be chilled, but if you have a fridge you could also put some tap water in a bottle and chill your own.
How about ice creams?
Nice try. Of course there is no legal obligation for your employer to treat you to a Solero in any circumstances, but bosses should know that a well-timed round of lollies can engender goodwill that lasts much longer than the typical British summer.