What sort of workplace legal issues arise in a heatwave?

Richard Thomas looks at the HR challenges that can accompany a prolonged spell of hot weather 

Annual leave and unexplained absences  

In the weeks leading up to the summer holidays, annual leave requests begin to pile in. As it’s impossible to grant every employee their holiday at once, employers can refuse leave, if business demands it, under the Working Time Regulations 1998. To avoid disputes, they should treat holiday requests equally and fairly. 

Employers should ensure employees clearly understand the administration process of holiday requests, whether they grant employees annual leave on a first come, first served basis or adopt an open-book approach where all employees submit their requests openly for agreement in advance. 

Long summer nights spent in beer gardens also mean there might be unexplained absences among teams. Employers should undertake a return-to-work interview to investigate the absence and determine whether there is a genuine reason. If no cause can be established, it may be appropriate to take relevant disciplinary procedures. 

Cancelled flights

Travel disruption can legitimately lead to employees failing to come back to work on their scheduled return date. In these circumstances, employers should look for evidence that the employee has kept their line manager updated with the issues they’re facing. 

If it appears they’ve been irresponsible in the way they have managed their travel arrangements (eg booking a return flight to land at 6am, when scheduled to return to work at 9am that day), disciplinary action may be appropriate. 

Lunchtime beer drinking 

The office is stuffy, and there’s an hour to escape to the shade of a nearby beer garden. The temptation to indulge in a refreshing pint could be overwhelming – but could it get employees sacked? Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer here, and it depends on the circumstances and employee responsibilities. 

A dismissal for a one-off incident, with no disciplinary warning, needs to be so serious that it constitutes gross misconduct for it to be fair. To successfully argue this, employers would need to demonstrate several factors. 

The starting point is to review the employer’s policy in this regard. Drinking alcohol during working hours could be an example of gross misconduct. And, if they were incapable of doing their job, or they committed another act of gross misconduct while intoxicated, employers might be justified in sacking their employee.

It also depends on the job itself; it’s almost never going to be a good idea for a pilot to be having a pint during a shift. An employee who has to adhere to additional health and safety requirements would be expected to be more stringent with alcohol consumption. If that one (or more) pint at lunch could risk the health and safety of those around them, or in their care, they might be putting their job, as well as other people, at risk.

One grey area when considering drinking during working hours – what if the boss is there having a pint too? Can they still penalise employees? If the employer has previously condoned employees drinking at lunchtime, they’d find it difficult to argue that anyone should be fired for it.

There’s also a difference between one pint at lunch, and an employee with an apparent alcohol problem. In the latter situation, we recommend the employee should be given help and assistance – failing to do so could render any resulting dismissal unfair. 

Too hot to work 

The idea of being too hot to work in the UK would seem outlandish any other summer, but this one is breaking records. The relentless heat will have put a strain on employees, particularly those within manual labour professions. Even in office blocks and business estates, temperatures have crept up and those without air conditioning have suffered.

Is any temperature considered too hot to work, and what rights do employees have if they feel it’s too warm to fulfil their role? Employers have a legal obligation to their staff to create and maintain a comfortable working environment – this includes providing a reasonable temperature for employees to work in. 

If an employee raises concerns or makes a complaint to their employer, it is vital the employer assesses the risks to health and safety and takes responsible action through control and prevention measures, when necessary.

Relaxing office dress codes and supplying fans and other cooling measures to mitigate the high temperatures are ways employers can provide reasonable conditions for workers to carry out their roles. 

Richard Thomas is a partner and employment lawyer at Cardiff and London-based firm Capital Law