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19 July 2022

Does the UK need new heatwave working laws?

With temperatures exceeding 37°C, these are your rights for working in hot temperatures.

By Emma Haslett

Today (18 July) has been confirmed as the hottest day of the year, with temperatures exceeding 37°C in central London during the first day of what the Met Office has warned will be a two-day “exceptional hot spell” in its first red weather warning for heat.

Public transport providers have reverted to pandemic advice (“only travel if necessary”); unions are calling for the introduction of a law setting a maximum temperature for workplaces. As the world heats up, how should British employers adapt – and could there be an emergency bank holiday?

What are the workplace rules during a red weather warning for a heatwave?

There are no laws in the UK governing what temperature a workplace should be. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has suggested rules on minimum workplace temperatures (16°C if it’s an office, 13°C if it involves “rigorous physical work”), but it doesn’t have an upper limit “due to the high temperatures found in, for example, glass works or foundries”. Instead, it says employers should make a “suitable assessment of the risks to the health and safety of their employees, and take action where necessary and reasonably practicable”.

For the GMB union, that isn’t enough. It has called for a maximum working temperature to be put in law, adding that employers should, at the very least, consider relaxing dress codes and providing “proper hydration”.

[See also: Welcome to the inferno]

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Can I insist on working from home?

Train operators are encouraging people to stay at home if they can, emphasising that they should only travel if necessary. The trains that are operating are running at restricted speeds because rails expand when they heat up, which may cause them to buckle if trains rattle over them at their usual speeds. Even the government has encouraged workers to stay home. Kit Malthouse, the Cabinet Office Minister, told BBC News that “if [people] don’t have to travel, this may be a moment to work from home”.

However, since the end of the government’s work from home guidance a year ago, employees don’t actually have the right to work from home. On the bright side, employers have a duty of care and, as Kate Hindmarch, an employment lawyer at Langleys Solicitors, pointed out to the Sun, working from home may actually be worse “due to a lack of air conditioning and proper ventilation”.

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[See also: Top ten UK temperatures ever recorded]

Could I refuse to work?

Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 gives workers the right to leave a workplace that is unsafe. “Workers are entitled to remain away from the workplace if – in their opinion – the prevailing circumstances represent a real risk of serious and imminent danger which they could not be expected to avert,” says the Trades Union Congress (TUC), although it also suggests people “seek advice from their union” before exercising their rights under section 44.

Employers should ensure their staff are able to take breaks, have access to shade, have plenty of fluids and have sunscreen and protective clothing. This guidance mainly applies to workers such as “builders, postal workers and street cleaners”, who are outside for long periods, it adds – although office workers are absolutely entitled to complain bitterly, and at length, if the air con isn’t working properly.

[See also: How deadly could heatwaves in Europe get?]

What rules are there for employers in other countries?

In Germany employers must be prepared to alter working hours so employees can come in either earlier or later, to make the most of cooler mornings or evenings, and pregnant women or people with disabilities are allowed to ask to leave work early or work from home. Schools also have “hitzefrei”, where school is out once the temperature in the classroom hits 27°C.

In Italy people can refuse to work if it’s too hot or too cold, while in Greece the government can intervene to change working hours.

Will there be an emergency bank holiday?

As front pages warned of the perils of the heatwave and the government convened a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee over the weekend, social media users suggested an emergency bank holiday was the best way to combat the heat. The government has kept schtum – so, alas, no bank holiday this time, although if infrastructure fares as badly as some experts have warned, we may be in for an accidental day off.

[See also: Are extreme heatwaves the new normal?]