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This summer’s hot weather raised the issue of the law regarding temperatures in the workplace. What is a suitable environment will depend on the nature of the activity. For example, the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers recommends a temperature of 20°C for offices, whereas a temperature as low as 13°C might be more suitable for those carrying out heavy work in a factory.
The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 lay down particular requirements for most aspects of the working environment but do not specify a maximum or minimum temperature. They merely state that the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings must be ‘reasonable’. The Approved Code of Practice accompanying the Regulations does say that the temperature in workrooms should normally be at least 16°C, or at least 13°C where much of the work involves severe physical effort, but no mention is made of a maximum temperature. The Code of Practice merely outlines steps that can be taken where the temperature in the workplace would otherwise be uncomfortably high.
Employers also have a general duty under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of their employees at work and a duty under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 to carry out assessments of risks to employees. High temperatures pose an increased risk of accidents, for example due to reduced levels of concentration or slippery, sweaty palms. Heat can also aggravate existing medical conditions, such as high blood pressure and heart disease.
One of the main causes of excessive heat in the workplace is the increased use of glass as a construction material. Glass buildings are airy and light but are often expensive to maintain at a comfortable temperature. Working in a glass building in direct sunlight can be like working in a hothouse.
The Trades Union Congress is calling for an absolute maximum workplace temperature of 30°C (27°C for those doing strenuous work) and a maximum temperature of 24°C beyond which steps must be taken to cool the working environment. It also wants a legal duty on employers introduced to protect those who work outside from the effects of heat and exposure to the sun.