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Heatwave in the UK – are staff legally entitled to time off work in hot weather?

With summer in full swing and offices sweltering amid a UK heatwave, the uncomfortable conditions for staff can cause a dilemma for employers about whether they should be allowed time off - and relaxing some other workplace procedures

Sticky shirts, fans on full blast and the odd groan about it being too hot – welcome to the annual UK heatwave in offices around the country.

Except this time it doesn’t appear to ever want to end, with soaring temperatures becoming commonplace since May and expected to last for weeks to come.

The mercury is still rising, with the Met Office predicting it could reach as high as 35C by Thursday (26 July).

Now, many of us love the feeling of having foreign-style heat in our own gardens but when it comes to the Monday to Friday slog, the sun’s rays can make the working environment almost unbearable.

Laura Kearsley, partner and solicitor in the employment team at East Midlands-based law firm Nelsons Solicitors, explains what the law says on employee rights during hot weather.

 

Can I leave my workplace if it becomes too hot?

Not unless you feel unwell and you need to take sick leave.

The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 places a legal obligation on employers to provide a “reasonable” working temperature in the office.

Your employer has a duty to determine what reasonable comfort will be in the particular circumstances.

 

Are there any other regulations that protect workers during a heatwave?

In addition, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 requires employers to make a suitable assessment of the risks to the health and safety of their employees.

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

 

Does my boss have to legally provide air conditioning in the office?

No, they do not. But where working temperatures are uncomfortable, employers should consider:

  • Using 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

However, sensible employers will use mobile air conditioning units and fans to keep workers cool.

If you have other suggestions for how your employer could make working in during heatwave more comfortable, you should pass these on.

 

Is it acceptable for me to wear shorts and flip flops in the office during warm weather? What will happen if I defy my employer?

Your employer may change dress code requirements in a heatwave if this is appropriate.

However, they 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.

 

Are there any other regulations that protect workers during a heatwave?

The general duties for employers to treat employees with trust and confidence apply throughout the employment relationship.

At times of hot weather and uncomfortable working conditions, employers will need to be considerate to employees – after all, if staff are too hot, they won’t be at their most productive.

 

What do employers’ organisations say about working conditions in a heatwave?

Matthew Fell, chief UK policy director at employers’ group the CBI, said: “While the current hot spell has provided welcome fillip for consumer-facing sectors, large numbers of employees are feeling the heat as they carry out their day-to-day tasks, especially those working outdoors.

“Responsible employers take the welfare of their employees very seriously, particularly during this unusual weather.

“Companies can help keep their employees cool by considering a range of measures, from flexible working to help those with punishing commutes to relaxed dress codes, so staff feel more comfortable in their place of work.

“Ultimately, a common sense approach is needed, as some employees will have less flexibility than others, for example those wearing safety equipment on construction sites.

“In all cases, staff should have easy access to drinking water as temperatures soar to help keep them healthy and productive.”