HR's role when the heat is on
As the UK continues to bask in high temperatures, we look at what employers can and should do to ensure the health and safety of staff
Throughout the months of June, July and August hordes of picnickers and day-trippers flocked to the nation’s parks and beaches as the UK reached record high temperatures. On 26 July temperatures peaked at 35.3 degrees Celsius in Faversham, Kent, marking the hottest day of the year so far. This stood not too far short of the UK’s current highest-ever temperature of 38.5 degrees Celsius recorded back in 2003.
But while the heatwave was welcomed – particularly over the weekend or by people on holiday – for many workers it was torturous. In addition to commuting to work during rush hour in sweltering trains, tubes, trams, buses and cars, workers also had to endure a full day indoors, often in offices with outdated or inefficient air conditioning. The situation was worse for workers whose employers impose strict dress code policies – or, worse still, for those who had to work outside in the heat.
Based on Met Office forecasts, it looks like the warm weather will be sticking around for a bit longer into September. More worryingly still, climate change experts predict that this year’s heatwave isn’t a one-off but will become the new norm.
So what can and should HR do to help employees cope with working in heatwaves?
At present employers are bound by a series of laws to ensure the health, safety and welfare of workers during office hours. These include the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, which require employers to make a suitable assessment of the risks to the health and safety of their employees. The temperature of the workplace is one such hazard employers should consider when doing such risk assessments.
There is also the Workplace Regulations 1992, which places a legal obligation on employers to provide a ‘reasonable’ working temperature in the office, says Laura Kearsley, partner and solicitor in the employment team at East Midlands-based Nelsons Solicitors.
But what constitutes ‘reasonable’? “According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), a reasonable working temperature depends on the activity being performed, as well as the environmental conditions of the workplace,” says Kearsley. “For example, people working in bakeries and cold food stores can expect different extremes as part of the job.”
Although employers do not legally have to provide air conditioning to achieve this ‘reasonable working temperature’, Kearsley advises them to consider offering air con or fans, “providing cool water in the workplace and encouraging workers to drink it to prevent dehydration” and “modifying dress code requirements if appropriate”.
She also thinks employers should weigh up putting a formalised hot weather policy in place, akin to the snow policies many already have in place for adverse winter weather, “especially in organisations where heat has more of an impact, such as where manual work is performed or where there is no air conditioning.
“It is often preferable to have a policy set out rather than trying to deal with matters as and when they arise,” says Kearsley.
Formal policies might seem a step too far for some organisations, but the TUC is lobbying businesses to make at least some concessions during periods of sustained heat. For outdoor workers these include varying working hours to avoid the hottest times in the middle of the day, and providing canopies or covered areas so workers can take breaks in the shade.
The union says that for outdoor workers the provision of fresh water and free protective equipment, including lightweight clothing and sunscreen, is a minimum legal right and not an add-on.
It also acknowledges that the punishing heat can be hard on indoor workers, especially in buildings that lack air con or effective ventilation, and for those who face arduous commutes into work via often cramped, boiling public transport.
As a result Kevin Rowan, the TUC’s head of organisation and services, says: “Employers should think about letting staff work from home where possible to avoid hot commutes and hot workplaces. Dress codes should be relaxed, and staff given the option of changing their usual working hours to avoid the worst of the heat.”
He adds that the union has proposed a maximum temperature of 30 degrees Celsius for indoor workers not doing strenuous jobs, and 27 degrees Celsius for those performing physical tasks.
“We’d also like the law to be stronger in making clear that, once the temperature gets above 24 degrees Celsius, employers should have hot weather plans that they put into action to keep the workplace cool,” says Rowan.
For many modern businesses adhering to these guidelines isn’t a major challenge. As a spokesperson for one large UK-based tech company explains: “Overall, we empower managers to use their discretion to support flexibility where appropriate. As a tech company our dress code is also already very relaxed.”
Others point out that the changing nature of the workplace and growing focus on ‘wellbeing’ over the past few years means some employers have already invested in efforts to create more comfortable surroundings for workers, which are now paying off.
Chris Hiatt, director at property developer Landid, says the company’s modern buildings are equipped with ‘club rooms’ and terraces so people can enjoy fresh air or the shade as required. Drinking water stations are also readily accessible throughout the offices and, where possible, the company pumps 100% fresh air into air conditioning systems rather than recycling air.
“Smart building owners are very conscious of what smart employers want to do and that’s create ‘well’ environments, because if you have ‘well’ people they come to work, they don’t get sick, and when they come to work they’re more productive,” says Hiatt.
However, at the other end of the spectrum, older more traditional businesses may not find this transition so easy. One employee of a leading UK media business says the HR department at his company sent an email to employees informing them that the ‘smart casual’ dress code was being relaxed during the hot weather. However, no one took up the offer as the email failed to clearly spell out what was and wasn’t considered acceptable and so staff didn’t want to “invoke the ire of management by turning up in flip flops and Bermuda shorts”.
Kearsley admits that relaxing dress code requirements in warmer weather can open up a can of worms because employers are “still entitled to insist on certain standards of appearance – particularly for customer-facing roles, and for shoes and clothing to be sensible for health and safety reasons”.
But given that climate change isn’t going to go away any time soon, businesses may well start feeling the heat if they don’t put hot weather policies in place sooner rather than later.