Working in a heatwave: your rights in the UK and how to prepare

Working in a heatwave: your rights in the UK and how to prepare

Explainer: With forecasts of extreme heat in England this week, here is a guide for workers and bosses

A person carries a fan through central London.

Hot weather can make work and travel unbearable, so with record temperatures forecast in England this week, what are your rights and how can you prepare?

How hot is my workplace allowed to be?

Unfortunately, while there is a minimum working temperature of (16C in an office) there is no maximum figure to use. This is because some workplaces, such as kitchens and foundries, are hot all the time. Instead, 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.

Extreme temperatures are among potential hazards that employers must address to meet their legal obligations, so if you and a significant number of your colleagues think it is too hot inside, the company should in theory carry out a risk assessment and act on it.

"There are no maximum temperatures set in the UK that state employees must be sent home," says Michael Brown, a health and safety content manager at the advisory firm Citation. "However, employers must ensure that they take reasonably practicable steps to ensure the welfare of their workers during high temperatures.

"This means different things for different industries.

For example, some outdoor employers may need to consider varying staff working hours to allow them to work at cooler points of the day, whereas employers with office staff may need to regulate air conditioning temperatures, or ensure a supply of fresh air from windows and fans."

Jo Mackie, the head of employment law at the law firm Slater and Gordon, adds that your employer has a duty of care to make sure you are safe at work. "You can ask to work from home if your employer won't be able to maintain a reasonable temperature, if, for example, there is no air conditioning in the building," she says.

'I am gettin' so hot, I wanna take my clothes off ...'

It is natural to want to wear less in sweltering conditions but you should stick to singing Nelly's summer anthem Hot in Herre rather than risk flouting the dress code without permission. Employers can tell workers to dress in a particular way at work, regardless of the weather; this might be written in your contract or employee handbook, or have been spelled out when you took the job.

"Employers can insist staff still wear their uniforms but where they can, they should consider relaxing some of the requirements, such as wearing a tie or a jacket, particularly if they are made from manmade fibres that don't allow the skin to breathe," says Jo Moseley, an employment lawyer at the law firm Irwin Mitchell. "Employers that can't adapt their uniform policy need to think about how staff can remain cool in a different way."

Employers should also be keeping an eye on workers who are more susceptible to heat stress, she continues. "This is likely to include pregnant and menopausal women or those with heart conditions," says Moseley. If this is you, raise your concerns with your line manager.

Lynsey Mann, the national health and safety officer at the GMB union, says bosses should be doing everything possible to keep workplaces cool. "This can be as simple as letting people wear more casual clothing and providing proper hydration.

And it is in employer's interests - workers who are overheating aren't going to be at their best," she says.

High levels of UV exposure under clear summer skies mean 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," Mann says.

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What about travel and commuting?

Rail passengers in England and Wales have been urged to travel only if necessary on Monday and Tuesday, as speed restrictions will be in place that will lengthen journey times. You should check the National Rail website for updates. Avanti West Coast, for example, has said tickets for travel on Monday and Tuesday will be accepted on Wednesday, or ticket holders can claim a full refund. Transport for London (TfL) is advising passengers to carry water and to consider travelling outside rush-hour.

The picture is also grim on the roads.

If temperatures do go as high as 40C as forecast, "people should question their decision to drive in the first place", says Rod Dennis, at the RAC.

The motoring organisation thinks the number of breakdowns could increase by a fifth over the two days, with cars at risk of overheating in queuing traffic.

Check your car's tyres, coolant and oil levels before setting off to reduce the risk of breaking down, it says, and do not leave pets in the car.

The RAC says drivers should have an emergency kit in the boot, including water, food, suncream and a fully charged phone. "If your car doesn't have effective air conditioning you should consider delaying a non-essential journey," adds Dennis. "This is particularly important advice for vulnerable people, including the very young and elderly, for whom the extremely high temperatures pose a clear health risk."

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