Phew! No forecast for an extreme heatwave, but how to stay cool at work during summer
Published 24 July 2023
While England was recently issued with a heat-health alert it is not forecast employees will have to prepare for working in the type of extreme heat we are seeing in parts of Europe.
Whatever your views on global warming, what we have experienced in recent years is that the hot weather…is well, getting hotter.
So, the prospect of going to work in scorching and incredibly uncomfortable temperatures, is something we will have to think about.
The UK Health Security Agency and the Met Office, the service covers England only, did issue a yellow heat-health alert for the 9 June to 12 June. It was the first heat warning to be issued this year.
The yellow alert was for a period of heat that would not be dangerous to most people, but could be to those who are particularly vulnerable e.g. the elderly with multiple health conditions and on multiple medications [1 cited 24.7.23]
The current hot spell across Europe has resulted in extraordinary thermometer readings being taken at new record highs.
While parts of the continent have sweltered in the recent heatwave, current forecasts say the UK will not experience the same blistering weather.
In Greece the intense heatwave and searing heat, combined with gale-force winds, has been linked to fast-moving wildfires which have forced residents and tourists to be evacuated from their accommodation [2 cited 24.7.23]
Rome was among cities that reached a new high, after hitting 42-43ºC, while Sicily and Sardinia reached 46ºC [3 cited 24.7.23 ] Parts of Spain reached as high as 45ºC
Red alert warnings, meaning the heat poses a threat to everybody and not just vulnerable groups, were issued in north-eastern Spain, Croatia, Serbia, southern Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro.
Businesses in Germany were urged by a public health chief to consider allowing staff to take midday siestas, as temperatures in the country soared [4 cited 24.7.23]
In Greece, workers at the Acropolis in Athens, one of the country’s top tourist attractions, walked off their jobs in protest at working conditions [5 cited 24.7.23]
A trade union representing staff working at archaeological sites, including the Acropolis, announced a four-hour strike every day for the period Thursday until Sunday.
The union said its staff had worked under intense heat and ‘tried to respond to our tasks, despite the dangerous conditions.’
In other countries, workers were reported to be walking off jobs — or threatening to — if more was not done to protect them and make working conditions more bearable.
In Rome, refuse collectors threatened to walk off their jobs if forced to work during the hottest part of the day. While public transportation workers in the Italian capital and Naples are said to have demanded mandatory air conditioned vehicles.
We are now well into the British summer season and while many may look skywards and crave hot weather, it can make having to go to work in the heat unbearable at times. Working in intense heat can be unsafe and dangerous.
After the UK was issued with its first-ever extreme heat warning last year, the GMB union called for a ‘too hot to work’ law to be introduced to protect employees from being forced to work under scorching temperature [6 cited 24.7.23]
e union was calling for a legal maximum temperature for work to be set at 25C.
The current hot weather in Europe although largely unprecedented, is not unexpected. The seven years preceding 2021 were the hottest on record, according to data from the EU's satellite system.
The Copernicus Climate Change Service said 2021 was the fifth-warmest year, with record-breaking heat in some regions [7 cited 24.7.23]
Last year saw the UK’s new record-high temperature of 40.3°C recorded by the Met Office at Coningsby in Lincolnshire [8 cited 24.7.23]. It was also the warmest year on record.
We have seen 15 of the UK’s top 20 warmest years on record all occur this century - with the entire top 10 within the past two decades [9 cited 24.7.23].
While UK summer temperatures are currently not forecast to hit the blistering heights being seen in parts of Europe, it is possible they could rise above 25C. So, here we take a look at working in hot weather.
Is there any clear guidance on when it is considered too hot to work?
There is no law for minimum or maximum working temperatures, e.g. when it is too hot to work.
Government guidance is that employers must stick to health and safety at work law, including [10 cited 24.7.23]
- Keeping the temperature at a comfortable level
- Providing clean and fresh air
Employees are advised to talk to their employer if the workplace temperature is not comfortable.
An employer cannot control the weather, so what can it really do to help if employees have to work indoors in extreme heat?
Working in such conditions can be extremely uncomfortable, especially if an employee performs physical duties or is exposed to hot equipment or processes.
All employers have a duty of care, which is their legal and ethical obligation to ensure the health, safety and well-being of employees.[11 cited 24.7.23]
An employer as part of its duty of care should make sure any working temperature is reasonable, and that workers are protected from heat stress and dehydration.
Some practical steps all employers can take to make working life more comfortable for employees working indoors during extreme heat are:
- Provide adequate ventilation and cooling, e.g. open windows, use fans or air conditioners or close blinds or curtains to block out sunlight. Staying hydrated is important and making sure drinking water is available to staff will also help.
- Be flexible and consider allowing adaptable working arrangements such as rescheduling work for cooler times of the day, allowing those who can do so to work from home, or arranging work and shifts to avoid peak heat periods.
- Allow for regular rest breaks and encourage workers to drink plenty of fluids before, during, and after work, and not wait until they are thirsty.
- Relax the dress code because wearing loose-fitting, breathable, and light-coloured clothing will help employees stay cool in the heat. Many years ago traffic wardens in Manchester went on strike when bosses insisted they should wear ties and jackets in hot weather a href="/•%09https:/www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/wardens-strike-over-ties-in-summer-1116345">"12 cited 24.7.23]
- Education is key and informing staff about the signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses, such as heat exhaustion, heat stroke, dehydration, or fainting can make them aware of the risks.
And support for those who have to work outdoors?
To reduce the risks an employer can :
- Schedule outdoor work for cooler hours, such as before 11am or after 3pm.
- Provide sunscreen and educate workers on how to protect their skin from sun damage.
- Ensure workers have access to drinking water and encourage them to take frequent breaks in the shade.
- Cover open areas with canopies or tents to block out direct sunlight.
- Supply workers with lightweight hats with brims and comfortable protective clothing that covers their arms and legs.
What all employers should do
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has urged employers to make sure their workers are protected during periods of extreme hot weather this summer [13 cited 24.7.23]
The HSE says the yellow heat-health alert issued in the UK last month coupled with record high temperatures last summer, should prompt employers to take action to protect those working both inside and outside in extreme heat.
Employers must assess risks to the health and safety of their workers by law, including risks from extreme weather such as heat waves.