Employers urged to introduce flexible working patterns as temperatures soar

TUC asks government to legislate for maximum workplace temperature, with hottest day on record set to test employees’ endurance

Businesses are being encouraged to allow employees to work flexible hours or work from home as temperatures look set to reach record highs this week.

Tomorrow (Thursday) could be the hottest day on record in the UK, with unions and other experts calling on employers to let staff start or finish early to avoid sweltering conditions in the workplace or on their commutes.

Public Health England has issued an amber heat-health warning this week – one level below a ‘national emergency’ red warning, and the Met Office has said temperatures on Thursday could reach a record 39°C in parts of the country, with almost the entire UK sweltering in temperatures above 30°C. 

The current all-time record is 38.5°C, logged in Faversham, Kent in August 2003, but the Met Office said there was a 60 per cent chance temperatures would breach this tomorrow. 

While some workplaces are air-conditioned or cooled, the TUC has warned that many are risking the health and safety of staff as well as business productivity.

The union highlighted post-war buildings with a lot of glass, such as schools or offices, could become particularly stifling, adding that many union representatives have also reported issues in manufacturing plants, catering establishments and warehouses. 

The TUC called for legislative change to restrict maximum indoor workplace temperatures to 30°C, or 27°C for strenuous work, and to force employers to introduce cooling measures when the temperature hits 24°C. 

Currently, there is no law for minimum or maximum working temperatures, but government guidance says all indoor workplaces must be a ‘reasonable’ temperature. It suggests a minimum of 16°C, or 13°C if employees are undertaking physical work, but there is no guidance for a maximum temperature limit. 

While acknowledging that many people enjoy the sun, Frances O’Grady, TUC general secretary, said it was no fun working in a stifling office and employers should do all they can to keep the temperature down.

“It's in bosses’ interests to provide a cool and comfortable work environment,” O’Grady said. “Workers who are unable to dress down in lighter clothing, or who work in offices without air conditioning, fans or drinking water, are going to be tired and lack inspiration and creativity.” 

She said the easiest way for staff to keep cool inside was to allow them to work in casual clothing, and advised employers to look at flexible working patterns. 

Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD, said extreme heat could affect individuals’ level of concentration and cause fatigue, which may have health and safety implications for people working in safety-critical roles.

She advised employers to make sure workplaces were as cool as possible and to provide fans if there was no air conditioning, in addition to echoing calls for strict uniform codes to be relaxed. “Where possible, employers should allow people to work from home in very hot weather and put plans in place to maximise their comfort so they can get on with their jobs,” Suff said. “Commuting can be arduous in hot weather as many trains don’t have air-con, so allowing people to stagger their start and finish times to avoid travelling at peak rush hour could help.”

Alan Price, group operations director at Peninsula, told People Management that undertaking a risk assessment would help businesses understand what temperatures were reasonable for the type of work undertaken and the nature of their workplace. He said speaking to staff to gain a “majority view” of a comfortable working temperature could also be useful.

Price added that it was easy for employees to feel less engaged when the weather was unseasonably pleasant outside, which could result in some skipping work to embrace the heat while it lasted. “Taking simple steps to show employers value and appreciate their staff during hot weather will help perk employees up and reduce absenteeism,” he said. “These steps can include providing ice lollies, cold drinks or summer snacks to members of staff.”