Health and safety in extreme weather: the problem hots up

Covid and high energy prices could create more issues in extreme cold, than extreme heat.

As temperatures soared above 40˚C in the UK this year, transport networks struggled and employees found themselves asking questions such as 'when is it too hot to work?'

Due to the pandemic, at least for office-based jobs, the answers – often working from home and lots of water – were fairly simple.

However, if extreme cold hits the UK this winter the current climate makes the answers much harder.

Heavy weather and HR:

Planning for extreme weather disruption

HSE warns employers to prepare for warmer future

Most work in unpleasant environments

HSE compliance in a post-pandemic world?

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has long had regulations in place to ensure employers create a ‘reasonable’ place for employees to work in. Pre-pandemic this was fairly easy to satisfy.

However, since the removal of government guidelines the pressures of protecting employees and the lengths to which employers go has been placed on companies.

Providing a workspace that both employer and employee view as ‘reasonable’ could become difficult if extreme cold hits in winter. There are many opposing concerns to satisfy.

Covid ventilation

Since Covid-19 came into our lives, ventilated offices, special air conditioning systems and social distancing all became an important part of creating a safe and ‘reasonable’ work environment.

During the heatwave windows were opened for ventilation and air conditioning was used. The real issue with ventilation comes when extreme cold arrives.

If temperatures fall below 0˚C will employers insist on good ventilation? And if they do will their employees want to come back into the office if it is too cold?

We know that Covid becomes more virulent in cold weather and so the risk of infection will be higher.

This creates a clash with the HSE guidelines for employers to create a reasonable workspace.

Employers will want to make offices comfortable, but how do they do this and create a covid-safe environment? Without advice to follow from government the power will be in clear policy that is agreed with employees.

We know this is a risk. According to the Following the Rules podcast, the FCA recorded 746 notifications of non-financial misconduct from firms it regulates in 2020 and 2021. Of these 646 were related to breaches of Covid restrictions – that’s 87% of incidents.

Employees are reporting what they believe to be non-financial misconduct, and when the report is made the reputational damage is done, regardless of whether it results in penalties for the employer or its directors.

Heating bills

As we saw during the recent heatwave many employees wanted to come to work because of the air conditioning. Temperature at the other end of the spectrum could provoke a similar result with employees not wanting to use up their own fuel to heat their homes during the day.

Potentially the heating in a building could be switched on, but with windows being open for ventilation high amounts of energy would be needed. The cost is then shifted to the business.

Can businesses afford the financial and, with carbon reduction targets in mind, environmental cost?

With three to four months to go before winter employers should start the process of thinking about these issues now because a strong communications strategy will be a vital part of successfully dealing with extreme cold.

There will need to be consensus among employees and employer as to policy. And employees have to be involved. This is especially important if different areas need to be created for different preferences.

If done properly, employers could come out of this well with a higher level of engagement, office attendance and satisfaction among employees that they were listened to.

If done poorly, employers could find themselves in a trickier situation with higher covid rates, unhappy employees complaining of the cold, overly ventilated offices, higher energy bills and even worse litigation on their hands.

Tim Hill is partner at Eversheds Sutherland