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25 July 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 1:09pm

Is it illegal to work when it’s this hot?

As Britain heats up, cooling our workplaces will become a necessary part of adjusting to a new climate of extremes. 

By Grace Morgan

The UK today broke its temperature record; Cambridge recorded 38.1C heat, trains were cancelled to avoid buckled tracks, and advice was circulated for taking care of the elderly. Depending on how you look at it, this is either the UK’s hottest July day on record, or the coolest for the next 150 years.  

For those whose workplaces don’t have air conditioning, sweltering temperatures make for uncomfortable commutes on overheated trains and buses, and unbearable working conditions in poorly ventilated workplaces without air conditioning. As the planet warms up, the sticky discomfort of heat – and its potentially deadly implications – is set to worsen. According to data from the 2018 Climate Projections Study, summers could be an alarming 5.4 degrees warmer by 2070.

The government’s rules on working in the heat are currently rather vague. No limit is set on maximum workplace temperatures. The 1992 Workplace Regulations state only that indoor working temperatures “must be reasonable”. Health and Safety regulations require employers to assess the risks that soaring temperatures might pose to their employees, suggesting intervention when “necessary and reasonably practicable” to ease discomfort – yet these guidelines aren’t applicable to all workplace environments. 

In factories or restaurant kitchens, for example, temperatures are necessarily high. The UK has more clarity when it comes to the acceptable minimum temperatures for workplaces – currently set at 16 degrees for indoor work. But Britain’s predictably cool and temperate climate may soon be a thing of the past; the Met Office predicts that summer heatwaves will become increasingly normal by 2050. 

The Labour Party this week announcend new plans that would force employers to give staff more breaks in hot weather, and ensure that more workplaces had air conditioning. New regulations would set a maximum temperature of 30C (or 27C in strenuous jobs), after which firms would be required to offer flexible working and travel, extra breaks, air conditioning and relaxed dress codes. It’s not the first time that similar plans have been floated. In 2006, the Trades Union Congress published a briefing stating that workplaces shouldn’t exceed a maximum temperature of 30C. In 2013, a Labour MP tabled a motion to make working in temperatures over 30 degrees illegal.

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With planetary warming an inevitability, we may expect that calls to cool our environment at work will become a necessary part of adjusting to a new climate of extremes. 

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Grace Morgan is a Danson Foundation intern at the New Statesman. 

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