It certainly is heating up here in the UK, with heatwave temperatures expected to soar to around 30 degrees in parts of the country.

Employment and Health & Safety Law experts at Weightmans have prepared a guide to help employers and employees understand their rights while working in high temperatures.

What are the legal guidelines for working during a heatwave?

Unfortunately, there are no specific laws that allow workers to stop working if it becomes too hot. However, James Muller, Principal Associate in Weightmans’ Health & Safety Team, emphasises that under UK employment law, every employer has a duty of care to ensure a safe working environment and protect the health and welfare of their employees.

If an employer fails to meet this responsibility, they would face enforcement action (including potential criminal prosecution) from the Health and Safety Executive or Local Authority. Employees might also be able to claim personal injury compensation if they become ill or injured as a result.

Employers must take all “reasonably practicable” measures to ensure the health and welfare of their employees.

  1. Flexibility

Employers could consider short-term adjustments to working practices such as allowing flexible hours so employees can avoid peak heat times, encouraging remote working, or even shortening the working day if that is operationally viable. Providing more frequent breaks, particularly for those in physical jobs, can prevent heat-related illnesses and still keep productivity high.

  1. The Impact of Working Environments

The impact of heat on employees can vary significantly depending on their working environment. Employees in physically demanding roles face higher risks during heatwaves. Employers should offer hydration stations, shaded rest areas, and breathable protective gear. Rotating tasks to limit heat exposure is also beneficial. For office environments without air conditioning, optimising ventilation, designating cooler break areas, and allowing lighter clothing can help.

  1. Employers’ Responsibility to Provide Clean Fresh Air

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Workplace (Health, Safety, and Welfare) Regulations of 1992 (regulations 6 and 7) detail that employers must ensure a healthy work environment by providing sufficient quantities of fresh or purified air, especially during a heatwave. Regularly maintaining air conditioning systems and replacing filters is crucial. Enhancing ventilation through fans and open windows, adding indoor plants to improve air quality, and using dehumidifiers to control humidity levels are important steps.

What are the rights of an employee working in a heatwave?

  1. What are the consequences of not following the dress code?

An employer might adjust dress code rules for warmer weather if it’s suitable. However, they can still require certain appearance standards, especially for roles involving customer interaction and to ensure health and safety. Ignoring dress code policies could lead to disciplinary measures. Employees would be advised to check with their employer if there is any uncertainty or perceived ambiguity within their policies rather than simply assuming that shorts and flip-flops will be acceptable when the mercury rises.

  1. Is an employer legally required to provide air conditioning in the office?

 No, they are not. The requirement is that they ensure that every enclosed workplace is ventilated by a sufficient quantity of fresh or purified air. What constitutes a “sufficient quantity” will depend on the particular circumstances.

When the working environment is uncomfortably warm, employers should consider:

  • Using fans or air conditioning (including mobile air conditioning units) if available / possible
  • Providing cool water and encouraging employees to stay hydrated
  • Adjusting dress code requirements, if suitable

If employees have additional ideas to improve comfort during warm weather, they should share them with their employer, who should take reasonable suggestions into account.

  1. Can employees leave the workplace if it gets too hot?

Not unless they feel unwell and need to take sick leave. The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 require employers to ensure a “reasonable” working temperature in the office. It is an employer’s responsibility to determine what constitutes reasonable comfort in specific situations. Employers should also consider this in the context of any employees who have health conditions or are pregnant.  As with many scenarios, discussing matters and agreeing a reasonable way forward is usually the best approach.

  1. Can an employee be sent home from work if it’s too hot?

Yes, employees can be sent home if it gets too hot, though there’s no legal maximum temperature for workplaces. The Health and Safety Executive requires employers to ensure a reasonable and safe working environment. If extreme heat poses a risk to health and safety, employers must take appropriate actions, which could include sending employees home. If employees are able and equipped to work from home (or another workplace), that should be straightforward. If an employee is not able to work in an alternative cooler location, in many cases, they will still be entitled to be paid as they are ready and willing to work, but it will depend on the exact circumstances, the terms of the employment contract and the employer’s policies.

Joanne Swann, Content Manager, WorkWellPro
Editor at Workplace Wellbeing Professional | Website

Joanne is the editor for Workplace Wellbeing Professional and has a keen interest in promoting the safety and wellbeing of the global workforce. After earning a bachelor's degree in English literature and media studies, she taught English in China and Vietnam for two years. Before joining Work Well Pro, Joanne worked as a marketing coordinator for luxury property, where her responsibilities included blog writing, photography, and video creation.