Extreme heat warning: how can HR support workers?

With unions calling for a maximum working temperature to be introduced, experts tell People Management how businesses can – and should – help employees cope

Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

HR experts, employment lawyers and unions are asking employers to make staff safety the top priority as temperatures are set to reach new records this week.

A red warning of extreme heat is now in place in much of London, the south-east and parts of northern England, while an amber warning has been extended to Wales, southern Scotland and the rest of England.

A red warning means that there is a risk to life that extends outside of the health and social care system. The warning will be in place today (18 July) and Tuesday when temperatures are expected to hit 40ºC in the afternoons, before returning to the mid-20s on Wednesday.

Heatwave: how can businesses best support workers?

Managing clinically vulnerable employees in a post-Covid era

Why health and safety must be at the heart of every business

This would mean that temperatures could break records and surpass the highest ever recorded temperature, which was 38.7ºC on 25 July 2019.

This is the first time that the Met Office has introduced such a red warning for heat since the system was introduced last year. Network Rail has also issued warnings advising passengers to only travel if “absolutely necessary” on Monday and Tuesday.

With the new warnings in mind, People Management asks how businesses can support employees through this time.

How hot is too hot?

Unions have called for a legal maximum workplace temperature to be introduced; GMB has said this should be 25ºC, while the TUC and Usdaw have both said that maximum temperatures should be 30ºC, and 27ºC for more rigorous work. Meanwhile, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has also said that temperatures in the workplace should be “reasonable”.

Paddy Lillis, general secretary at Usdaw, said outdoor workers needed sun and heat protection, shade, sunscreen, suitable clothing, water and frequent breaks, while indoor workers should have a relaxed dress code, more frequent breaks and cool drinks.

He said that beyond the “comfort zone” of between 16ºC and 24ºC, heat exhaustion will start, leading to symptoms such as “irritability, dizziness, headaches, nausea and fainting”.

Michael Edwards, health and safety advisor at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, said that employers should learn from practices in hotter countries, noting that “an environment that is too hot for one person may be just right for another”.

For manual and outdoor workers, allowing regular breaks, changing shift times, reviewing PPE and workwear, providing training on heat stress, and monitoring health are all encouraged.

Office and retail workers should be allowed to have a relaxed dress code, place desks away from direct sunlight, using aircon and fans, and blinds and general ventilation.

Can employees take legal action over extreme heat at work?

Sarah Calderwood, partner in the employment team at Slater Heelis Solicitors, said there can be no exact figure for maximum temperatures: “How hot an environment feels is affected not just by air temperature, but also humidity and movement of the air”. 

“To establish if the temperature is comfortable, employers should consider how many employees are saying they’re uncomfortable”, she said. Employers are liable to issue compensation to employees if they are dismissed for raising health and safety issues, meaning that they should think before instigating disciplinary action against anyone who raises concerns about unsafe temperatures, or refuses to return to a workplace that is too hot.

Martin Williams, head of employment at Mayo Wynne Baxter, pointed out that it is difficult to set a maximum workplace temperature that is appropriate for all types of business, but said that employees will not be their most productive if it is uncomfortably hot. Employers could face a personal injury dispute if they do not look after employees, especially the more vulnerable.

“Conditions including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and arthritis can make working in the heat particularly challenging, so employers must take extra care and make necessary adjustments to keep staff safe”, he said.

Adam Pennington, senior associate solicitor at Stephensons, added: “When it comes to soaring temperatures, workers’ rights haven’t really kept up with our changing climate”. He said that employers have a duty of care to employees, and safe temperatures will vary across workplaces, and that detailed risk assessments are essential so that vulnerable workers can be protected.

Gavin Scarr Hall, health and safety director at Peninsula, said risk assessments were important, particularly for outdoor workers and those who work with machinery. 

“In some workplaces there may be equipment that produces even more heat, for example ovens, machinery, or tools, which must also be taken into consideration”. He said it was easy to become drowsy in the heat, meaning employees might have a greater risk of slip and trip falls as well as injuries from hand tools or other machinery.

What should employers focus on now?

Molly Johnson-Jones, co-founder and chief executive of Flexa Careers, said “ways of working should always fit around individual staff members’ needs and preferences”: some may prefer to use the office for the air conditioning, while others may need a later start time “to compensate for sleepless nights”.

Susie Lamont, occupational health adviser at PAM, said that if an employee is a victim of heat exhaustion, they should move to the shade, lie down and raise their legs slightly while being sprayed with cool water, making sure to stay hydrated. This is essential to avoid heatstroke, which can lead to serious complications.

“Anyone who feels like they’re overheating must be told to stop what they’re doing and take measures to cool down,” she said, advising that more serious cases should be referred to 111 or A&E.

Alan Price, chief executive of BrightHR, also highlighted that annual leave requests can “pile up” during the hot weather: “It's important that you don't leave yourself understaffed so check your annual leave caps prior to accepting any requests”.

Kevin Irwin, senior health and safety consultant at Arinite, said that for workplaces without air conditioning, fans should be distributed. He also said employers should “make use of natural light” from windows instead of using overhead lighting that can emit a lot of heat. If using air conditioning, “ensure that windows remain closed when it is on to increase the fridge-like effect”, he said.