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Worker rights in a heatwave explained: Does my employer legally have to provide air con in the office?


SUNNY weather may be lovely on holiday, but it’s more challenging for those returning to work.

Unfortunately “Freedom Day” has come at the same time as the hottest heatwave of this year.

Air conditioning may be an incentive to go back to the office

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Air conditioning may be an incentive to go back to the officeCredit: Getty – Contributor

Temperatures are so hot, the Met Office has issued the first ever extreme heat warning for the UK, and could reach a balmy 35 degrees by Friday.

If you’re lucky enough to work in an air-conditioned office then you may be spared the worst of the heat. 

Employers, however, are not legally obligated to provide air conditioning though they must ensure temperatures are not extreme. 

Can you stop working when it gets too hot?

Kate Hindmarch, an employment lawyer at Langleys Solicitors has said: “Employers have a duty of care to keep their employees safe, which is extended to include those who are still working from home.”

Health and safety regulations stipulate that all workspace temperatures must be “reasonable”.

Employment lawyer, Laura Kearsley from Nelsons, suggests that employers take the following measures to meet this requirement:

  • Using portable fans or air conditioning if available
  • Providing cool water in the workplace and encouraging workers to drink it to prevent dehydration
  • Modifying the dress code requirements if appropriate.

If your employer has taken steps to ensure “thermal comfort” (a pleasant temperature in your working environment) then you will have to take sick leave if you are still unable to work.  

But be careful, Brits often believe they are entitled to more sick pay and sick leave than they actually are.

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What should employers do if their employees are falling ill due to heat?

If employees are feeling ill or worn out due to the heat, the employer should encourage them to seek out medical assistance and take a break from work.

The temperature of the workplace is one of the potential hazards that employers must consider when doing risk assessments

Gavin Scarr-Hall, Health and Safety Director at Peninsula, said: “Employers may change dress code requirements in warmer weather if this is appropriate.

“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.”

Can you go into the office if it’s too hot for you to work from home? 

Even if your workplace is air conditioned, you may still be restricted to working from home due to coronavirus guidelines.

Kate said: “The government’s current Coronavirus guidelines still encourage the public to work from home where possible.

“If an employee feels that the workplace might be cooler, an employer can encourage them to come in and work there as long as they are still following all COVID-19 guidelines.”

What are the temperature recommendations?

The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 specifies a minimum temperature of 16C (13C if work involves considerable physical activity) but there are no specific maximum temperature recommendations.

Pranav Bhanot, litigation solicitor at Meaby & Co Solicitors said: “What is considered reasonable will also depend on a number of factors including the type of work that is performed by an employee, the environment in which that work is typically performed. 

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“The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have also advised that employers should investigate temperatures if a certain threshold of complaints from employees are received by the employer.

“For example, in non air conditioned offices, 15% of the staff should complain before an investigation into workplace temperature is commenced.”

The Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers recommends the following temperatures for different working areas:
• Heavy work in factories: 13C
• Light work in factories: 16C
• Hospital wards and shops: 18C
• Offices and dining rooms: 20C

The TUC has said previously it wants to make it illegal to keep people at work indoors if the temperature is above 30C.

What are my rights when travelling to work?

Each transport company sets its own policies and they may vary widely so be sure to check before you travel.

But like offices, there are no laws obligating transport companies to keep temperatures in their vehicles below a certain threshold.

In 2018, Londoners complained of 42C temperatures on the Tube – higher than the legal limit for transporting cattle.

Transport for London has said that all carriages will be air conditioned by 2030.

Even though it’s not a legal requirement to wear a face covering anymore, if you do choose to wear one, make sure it isn’t causing you to overheat.

Always remember to take a bottle of water with you to prevent dehydration.

Is it safe to sleep with a fan on? It may seem like the only way to make the nights bearable but some experts say it could be bad for you.

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If fans aren’t doing the trick, you may have considered buying an aircon unit. Wowcher is selling one for £44.

Not keen on spending money on fans or air con? Here are all the other ways to cool down in the heat.

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