Legal

How employers can deal with heatwaves during lockdown

25 Jun 2020 By Simon Robinson

With so many people at home because of the coronavirus pandemic, Simon Robinson outlines businesses’ responsibilities around working in hot weather

On one hand, the warm weather during lockdown has been a real saviour – giving people the opportunity to enjoy the fresh air during their daily exercise and children the chance to play outdoors while off school and nursery. But on the other hand, for those working from home during a heatwave, this rare English summer can prove to be more of a hindrance, particularly if they’re used to operating from an air-conditioned office. 

For employers that could usually control the temperature in the workplace, when teams are dispersed and working remotely, there are considerations around their responsibilities when it comes to extreme heat.

It’s actually a common misconception that there is a maximum temperature a workplace can be. The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 advise there is a legal obligation on employers to provide a ‘reasonable’ working temperature in the office, and the Health and Safety Executive notes that, “during working hours, the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be reasonable”. However, there’s no specific temperature recommendation and ‘reasonable’ depends on the nature of work being carried out.

In terms of risk assessment, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 state that an employer is required to make a suitable assessment of health and safety risks to employees. Workplace temperature is a risk that businesses need to bear in mind, but it’s unreasonable to be expected to visit the homes of your staff, so common sense must prevail. 

During hot weather, one area that working remotely does benefit is dress codes. Although there is no requirement for an employer to relax their dress code or uniform depending on the weather – or indeed location of staff – they may consider allowing staff to ‘dress down’. However, that does not mean that any clothing is suitable, so it’s acceptable to request that employees dress appropriately for any video calls. 

Increased rest breaks may be required during warm weather, particularly if any employees are vulnerable, so businesses should commit to communicating this to staff working remotely. Encourage team members to keep hydrated and take time out to cool down, if they feel the need to do so. 

In general, employers should always be aware of the general duty for them to treat staff with trust and confidence during the working relationship. Businesses will need to be considerate of any employees who are struggling in the heat and demonstrate flexibility to ensure they are comfortable. This may mean making slight changes to usual working hours, but employers should bear in mind that staff will almost certainly work more efficiently when they’re comfortable anyway. 

Weather like this is rare for the UK, so that means it’s unlikely that you’ll be making long-term or permanent changes to operational style or policies. Moreover, one good thing to come out of the pandemic has been the realisation for many employers that change isn’t always a bad thing – many have been pleasantly surprised by how efficient remote teams can be, particularly when you add childcare issues and potential poor health into the mix. A little flexibility goes a long way; it boosts productivity and encourages goodwill among employees – whatever the weather.

Simon Robinson is an employment lawyer and founder of Robinson Ralph

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