Can I force my staff to work in hot weather?

As Brits we are used to the occasional snow day, when children are sent home from school and train lines are suspended due to ‘the wrong kind of snow’. But what we are not so used is the scorching heat and soaring temperatures being recorded this summer.

There are minimum working temperatures in the UK (16 degrees for an indoor environment), but there is no legal maximum working temperature. As with much of UK legislation, employers have a duty of care towards their staff, must act reasonably to ensure a healthy and safe working environment and make adjustments if required. The requirement usually comes from a risk assessment.

As an employer it is your responsibility to provide a suitable working environment for your employees. When it is cold, we make sure that our heating is working and that hot drinks are easily accessed. But when it is hot, this may seem a little more difficult to deal with.

Have you thought about buying your team an ice-cream?

Not only does it taste good, but it will help them to cool down, shows them that you are a caring boss AND it is tax deductible (I am reliably informed).

Your team will always appreciate the small stuff you do for them, if you do it right.

While an air-conditioned office may be lovely for some, there are many who do not like cold air being blasted around the office. The people sitting under the units end up freezing and those sitting further way end up no cooler than they were before. And, with the cold air, comes germs. So, if you do have an aircon unit, it is essential it is properly and regularly maintained and tested.

So, what else can you do?

Make sure that people have constant access to water and toilet breaks.

Enable people to take regular breaks and move around.

Put some kind of shading over windows or shut blinds to reduce the amount of sunlight streaming in.

Talk to your staff about what they need. Working from home may be the answer for some, but not for all. The office may be cooler than many homes right now.

If appropriate, can you relax the dress code? If you are going to do so, specify what is and is not acceptable. Again, speak to staff and find out what they are comfortable with.

You might want to think about changing the working hours. Starting earlier so that people don’t have to travel in the heat of the day. Or perhaps allowing people to come in once the rush hour has passed so there are less people on public transport and / or on the roads and therefore the journey is quicker.

You also need to have a plan if the National Infrastructure goes down. What happens if the trains stop running as they can’t risk the tracks buckling in the heat? What happens if the tarmac on the roads melt? What happens if there are power cuts? All of these things are a possibility and should be on your business continuity plan.

Have you done a risk assessment?

For your office, warehouse or shop? For any vulnerable employees? Do you have any older employees? Any pregnant employees?

Some employers will be facing the challenge of convincing their employees to come into work as many might feel that the sweltering heat means they are unable/ unwilling to be in the office in such conditions. However, as long as reasonable adjustments have been made, the employee is obliged to come into work unless a previous absence request (such as holiday) has been authorised. If an employee is found to be in breach of this, the employer has the right to discipline them. However, having a right to discipline does not mean that you do! Think about the impact on staff morale. Try the powers of persuasion first. Be very clear with staff about what is acceptable and what is not. Show them what measures you are taking to keep them safe at work.

One thing to bear in mind, is that, like during covid, if employees feel there is an imminent danger to their health and safety, they are legally allowed to leave work and there can be no repercussions. An example might be where there is no running water or where temperatures in the office are over 40 degrees or where equipment is failing due to the heat.

It is important that you protect your staff from the risks of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. While we all have a business to run and clients have expectations, as an employer you do have a duty of care so make sure you take all reasonable steps to meet your legal obligations. You can’t control the weather, but you can control your reaction to the weather.

Whatever you do – stay safe out there!