As a result of climate change, we are seeing extreme temperatures becoming increasingly common in the UK. As Britain was once a region in which temperatures rarely exceeded 25°C and seldom fell below freezing, our infrastructure simply is not equipped to handle extreme temperatures.
In July 2022, we saw temperatures in the UK exceed 40°C and, with the way that climate change is going, we are likely to see such extreme temperatures more frequently. From 1972 to today, the mean average temperature in July has risen by as much as 3.2°C, and the global temperature is currently rising faster than it ever has before. This means that in another 50 years, we could see the mean average temperature in July exceed 21.7°C.
Extreme heat is something that we have never had to consider previously in the UK, which is why there is not currently any legal guidance regarding maximum working temperature. Similarly, there is no law for minimum working temperature; however, the guidance suggests that it should not be any colder than 16°C indoors. Therefore, it is down to employers to ensure that employees find themselves in safe and comfortable working environments during those times when temperatures are unpredictable.
Thermal comfort at work
Keeping your employees safe and comfortable in regard to temperature is typically described as “thermal comfort”. This term refers to a person’s state of mind in terms of whether they feel too cold or too hot. It is an employer’s responsibility to ensure that the thermal comfort of their employees is managed correctly.
Those who run indoor workplaces are obliged to provide a variety of measures. These include:
- Sufficient space in workrooms
- Heating systems that do not emit harmful fumes
- Rest facilities and thermal clothing where needed
- Local cooling or heating (such as opened windows, fans, radiators, etc.)
- A reasonable temperature in the workroom (as previously mentioned, this should be above 16°C)
When employees are too cold
People becoming too cold at work used to be our primary concern in the UK; however, our priorities are rapidly shifting as we see the impacts of climate change take effect. Despite this, employers still need to concern themselves with ensuring thermal comfort when working in the cold. This can be achieved by:
- Providing sufficient breaks for employees to warm up in heated areas or get hot drinks
- Introducing systems to reduce exposure to the cold (e.g. working from home, flexible working patterns, job rotation)
- Providing appropriate clothing where necessary
- Providing insulating floor coverings or special footwear where necessary
- Blocking draughts
- Devising methods that reduce contact with cold spaces and objects where feasible
- Providing adequate heating
When employees are too hot
Employees becoming too hot in the workplace is a growing concern; however, there are measures that can be taken to ensure thermal comfort in warm conditions. These include:
- Providing air-conditioning or air-cooling
- Placing insulating materials around hot pipes
- Introducing systems to reduce exposure to the heat (e.g. working from home, flexible working patterns, job rotation)
- Providing additional facilities (e.g. cold water dispensers)
- Allowing sufficient breaks for employees to cool down or get cold drinks
- Relaxing the dress code (PPE must still be provided if required for the role)
- Siting workstations away from direct sunlight or other areas that radiate heat (e.g. machinery)
- Drawing the blinds to prevent sunlight from entering the building
- Opening windows
- Providing fans
Thermal comfort and PPE
In workplaces where PPE must be worn, extra provisions must be taken in warm temperatures. This is because PPE reduces the body’s ability to evaporate sweat, meanwhile, PPE can also be heavy, which only contributes to heat being produced in the body. As a result, the wearing of PPE in warm environments can contribute to the likelihood of heat stress.
In order to combat the complications that PPE presents in warm environments, the user should remove the PPE after exposure to the heat. This will allow the PPE to dry out and prevent heat from being retained and contributing to the heat of the body.
Although it may present discomfort, anyone who is required to wear PPE must still do so, regardless of temperature. Thermal comfort can be assured by allowing very frequent breaks so that the employee can retreat to areas in which the PPE does not have to be worn.
Very low or high work temperatures
Working in extreme temperatures can present very specific complications, including dehydration, cold stress, and heat stress. Should your employees report any illnesses that could be a result of the working temperature, it is your duty as an employer to perform a risk assessment and implement the necessary controls. For instance:
- Working habits need to be reviewed periodically and changed, where necessary.
- Health surveillance may be necessary for staff with special requirements, special requirements include taking medication, disabilities, certain illnesses, pregnancy, etc.
- Thermal conditions may need to be monitored and recorded.
Look after your employees with Paydata
As a reward management consultancy specialising in HR practices, we are dedicated to ensuring employee wellbeing across the country. For advice and guidance on supporting your employees, get in touch.