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Can you ask staff to keep working in a heatwave?

This week temperatures across the UK have soared into the thirties, creating concerns for employee health and safety and productivity. However, there is no maximum temperature for UK workplaces under the Health and Safety at Work Act.

Camilla Beamish, legal director in the employment team at Cripps, told HR magazine: ”Employees are not automatically entitled to a day off work even in an extreme heatwave.

"However, employers need be mindful of their duty of care to employees to provide, as far as reasonably practical, a safe working environment without risks to health."

Coping with the heat:

Summer heat: Don’t make us the dress code police, says HR

How should employers manage a heatwave?

Working in a heatwave: When is it too hot?

Allowing employees to work from home, where they are more comfortable and/or they can avoid potential travel disruptions is one way Beamish suggested employers could ensure their duty of care.

Employers’ duty of care can also include the provision of air conditioning or fans in work, and advice on the use of protective clothing, sunglasses, bottled water and sunscreen when outside.

For those that don't work at home or an in office, Beamish added: “It may also be appropriate to reschedule work where possible so that it can be carried out at cooler times of the day."

For any employers still concerned about employee absence due to the heat, Karen Watkins, director at HR consultancy Rowan Consulting suggested there may be a bigger problem at play.

She said: "Since the switch to improved homeworking and employees managing their own time and priorities, a rise in the number of sick days is not something we're seeing with our clients.

"As a business, if you're still experiencing issues with people taking 'sickies' due to weather, I would suggest you probably have wider issues around trust and broader morale that need attention at leadership level."

William Walsh, partner in the employment team at DMH Stallard, reminded employers to be mindful of their obligation in remote work environments.

He said: "The risks should be much lower, as home workers are unlikely to be undertaking physical tasks and, even if they were told to stop working, those individuals would still be in their same home environment. But the issue should not be discounted altogether. 

“If, for example, it was known that an employee was working from their home office set up in a small box room up in a loft conversion, where it could get uncomfortably hot, they should be encouraged to move and, if necessary, given flexibility around their tasks to allow them to do so." 

Acas’ top tips for managing hot weather include: keeping employees hydrated and cool; considering relaxing dress codes if appropriate (though there is no obligation to do so); being aware of potential travel disruptions and making sure vulnerable workers (such as pregnant or elderly workers, or those on medication) have any extra care they may need.

Acas chief executive, Susan Clews, said: “The warm summer weather may be a blessing for some, but many staff going into work on one of the hottest weeks of the year will not appreciate the heat.

“Acas has produced some tips for employers to help make sure their businesses remain productive during the hot weather and ensure staff are also happy and comfortable.”

Its full guidance on temperature at work can be found here.