We're in the midst of a June heatwave, with temperatures set to hit highs of 33C. Public Health England have issued a warning and employers need to take note. Heat exhaustion and dehydration can take place in the office as well as on the beach. Here at Office Genie we’ve pulled together all you need to know to help build a comfortable working environment as the mercury rises.
What you need to know
As we stated in our guide to minimum workplace temperatures, the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations of 1992, state that ‘[d]uring working hours, the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be reasonable.’
However, where the guidelines advise a minimum comfortable temperature of 16°C (13°C for workplaces where people carry out particularly strenuous activity), there is no such figure quoted for the top end.
Health and Safety Executive (HSE) state: "[A]n acceptable zone of thermal comfort for most people in the UK lies roughly between 13°C (56°F) and 30°C (86°F)…a meaningful figure cannot be given at the upper end of the scale. This is because of factors, other than air temperature, which determine thermal comfort.”
They do advise that an employer should take action if the workplace becomes too hot, but with no figure to guide managers (and everyone’s heat tolerance rather variable), when is the time to act?
How hot is too hot?
The HSE advise it may be necessary for employers to take actions to cool the workplace when the number of people complaining about temperature reaches a certain level. This varies depending on the conditions in the workplace.
For example, if the space is air conditioned then only 10% of the workforce need to complain for the employer to be strongly advised to conduct a thermal risk assessment. This figure is higher (15%) for workplaces with natural ventilation. Retail businesses, factories and other indoor spaces that do not have air conditioning must have 20% of employees complaining about the temperature before the employer should feel compelled to act.
What to do?
So, if the complaints come in and a risk assessment proves action must be taken, what exactly can employers do to cool down the workplace? Well, once again HSE advise a number of steps:
- Use fans or air conditioning to control the temperature
- Where possible try to find mechanical aids to cut employee output
- Prevent employees’ exposure to heat by:
- Allowing them to work at cooler times
- Limit any time spent in particularly hot areas of the workplace
- Provide an adequate amount of rest breaks
- Give staff a break area in cooler conditions
- Supply plenty of cold water
- Consider relaxing the dress code where practical and safe
- Consider supplying personal protective equipment specially designed to keep workers cool
Prevention is the best cure
In addition to this HSE also recommend a number of good practices to ensure a cool and comfortable workplace: These include practical measures such as insulating problem pipes, keeping workstations out of the sun, providing cooling equipment, ensuring windows are actually openable and installing thermometers at several places throughout the workplace.
They also recommend a number of cultural changes you might want to consider, that should also help ease any issues caused by rising temperatures: They recommend identifying those most at risk (pregnant women, older workers for example) and training employees to be able to identify the symptoms of heat stress.
While HSE provide excellent advice, and the Workplace Regulations provide some guidelines, the lack of clear guidance for employers may well be putting employees at greater risk of things such as heat stress. There are other vagaries too: For example what might an employer consider a “complaint” and even if the number of people complaining reaches the advised levels for action, these levels remain advisory.
It is this that has encouraged Trade Union Congress (TUC) to call for a guideline of 27-30°C (depending on the nature of the work) to be installed as a maximum workplace temperature. This could work much in the manner of the minimum guidelines, with employers needing to act if the temperature rises beyond this point. Hugh Robertson of the TUC has suggested it is in fact “ridiculous” these measures have not been taken.
Indeed, the facts tend to agree: With studies finding humans work best around 22°C, it would seem maintaining a comfortable temperature is best for both management and workers. Employees can continue to work well in a comfortable environment, while employers get a productive, comfortable and happy workforce.