Should employers be forced to send workers home in extreme temperatures?

Amid calls for a legal indoor maximum, People Management research finds two-thirds think employees should get a day off in hot weather

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It may be December with temperatures outside mostly stuck in single figures, but a People Management LinkedIn poll has found nearly two-thirds (62 per cent) of respondents thought employees should have the day off work if temperatures get too high. 

Of the 757 people polled, the remaining 38 per cent said people should still have to come into work if it is hot. 

These findings come as a Fabian Society report released last week called for the government to introduce a “specific maximum indoor working temperature law, including the ability to withdraw labour if workplace temperatures surpass 30ºC”.

Introducing a maximum indoor working temperature “would bring the UK into line with other countries, such as Spain and Germany”, added the report. 

It also said the maximum temperature should be reduced to 27ºC if employees are doing “strenuous work”, adding: “The measure should include appropriate exceptions, for example, foundries and kitchens.” 

The UK does not currently have any laws in place for when it is too cold or too hot to work, however its guidance for cold weather recommends a minimum of 16ºC, dropping to 13ºC if employees are doing physical work. 

The Fabian Society’s recommendations come following the summer 2022 heatwave, when temperatures hit 40.3ºC in some areas of England, resulting in 2,985 excess deaths according to government figures

Lisa Seagroatt, managing director of HR Fit for Purpose, told People Management: “Introducing a maximum indoor working temperature is something we can no longer ignore, but the reality and balance of making it work for both employers and their employees is always a difficult one.”

She continued: “Accepting that heat fatigue is just as dangerous to human life as working in the extreme cold is vitally important, but putting employee wellbeing first by closing places of work due to extreme heat is ultimately going to result in lost productivity and profitability for many businesses and they will simply not be willing or maybe able to consider this option.” 

Instead, she suggested it is “crucial” that businesses invest in air conditioning to enable them to stay open during times of extreme heat and aid employees’ wellbeing.

Ruth Wilkinson, head of policy at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, told People Management: “Climate change events will inevitably have consequences for people and for workers’ safety and health.” 

She said: “Working for prolonged periods of time in hot environments can impair a person’s ability to regulate their own internal temperature. This is known as heat stress. Factors such as work rate, humidity and the clothing worn while working can all contribute to this occurring.”

Wilkinson said that at a 24-26ºC, “workers slow down and reduce their hourly output rapidly”, referencing a study by the International Labour Organization. 

Once temperatures reach 33-34ºC, “a worker operating at moderate work intensity loses 50 per cent of his or her work capacity”, she said. 

The Fabian Society said the impact of high temperatures at work can vary depending on income and occupation. 

“Low-paid workers often lack sufficient access to water, they can’t easily escape the heat and they often have to wear uniforms or personal protective equipment designed for cooler temperatures,” the report said.

It added: “Workers in manual or hospitality occupations are more likely to experience excessively hot conditions; but so can employees in education establishments and offices if they are working on higher floors or in areas with big windows and poor ventilation.”

Emma Hillman, HR consultant at Stellamar, told People Management: “If the temperature reaches a certain level, then employees shouldn’t be at work – at least in the working environments which are affected the most.”

She said that workers in poorly ventilated factory environments may be impacted more than those working in air-conditioned offices. “The combination of manual labour and excessive heat can accelerate fatigue, diminishing overall productivity and potentially leading to workplace accidents.

“In such environments, the risk of accidents and injuries tends to rise. Factors like sweaty palms, reduced concentration and discomfort can compromise workers’ precision and attention to detail. This is especially concerning in jobs requiring careful handling of machinery or tools.”