Weathering the workplace
Friday, May 5, 2023
When it comes to the British, if it’s not football, the royal family, or holidays, the conversation invariably turns to the weather.
Of course, all of these topics affect our lives, but the latter has the potential for disruption. And for employers, it’s important to recognise that productivity can be tied to the weather.
Consider an April 2022 headline in the Independent – “£497m damage bill for Storms Dudley, Eunice and Franklin”. It detailed how the storms led to 177,000 claims being made after damage to homes, vehicles and businesses.
Heating and ventilation firm Andrew Sykes carries out regular surveys into the impact of temperatures on Brits at work and at home. In a 2014 survey of more than 2,000 people, it found that less than one-quarter of office workers thought the temperature in their office was comfortable, and more than one-third suggested they took at least 10 minutes out of work each day due to temperature alone.
Overall, 6% believed they spent more than half an hour each day not working well because of the temperature. Working conditions in the printing industry can vary wildly, from offices that may or may not be air-conditioned, to pre-media and digital printing zones kept permanently chilly to ensure peak performance of the kit therein. These areas can be a sharp contrast to factory floors where large printing presses generate a significant amount of heat.
The rules on temperature
So, with the prospect of a hot summer ahead, what are the rules? Alexandra Farmer, head of team and a solicitor at WorkNest, says it surprises some that there are no legal minimum or maximum working temperatures in the UK.
However, she says “employers are required to ensure that temperatures in all workplaces inside buildings are reasonable” and cites guidance published by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992. She says: “The guidance advises that temperature in a workplace should normally be at least 16°C, or at least 13°C where work involves rigorous physical effort. There is currently no guidance on the upper end of the scale.”
Mark Stevens, a senior associate at VWV, agrees. He tells how the question of suitable workplace temperatures has been on the radar of legislators for some time and says MPs have previously called for a limit to be introduced: “In 2016, a motion was tabled in parliament calling for the government to limit temperatures to 30°C, or 27°C for more strenuous work.
The motion suggested that employers would have to introduce control measures, such as breaks, access to water or air conditioning in the event that the above thresholds are met or exceeded. It has not yet found its way into statute, however.
If there is no legal minimum or maximum temperature, what should employers do? What is best for staff to help them work productively?
Looking at a June 2016 BBC report, the first thing to note is that employers will never be able to please everyone all of the time, as workers experience temperature differently.
A 2015 survey of 129 office workers in the US for softwareadvice.com backs this – it found that 42% of people thought their building was too warm, while 56% thought it too cold. However, a paper, Thermal Effects on Office Productivity, published by Sage Journals, detailed the effect of the ambient temperature on worker efficiency by tracking the activity of clerks in an insurance office. Although it measured the activity of just nine women, the results were fascinating. At 25°C they were typing non-stop with an error rate of just 10%. When the temperature dropped five degrees, they were half as productive and made more than double the number of mistakes.
But as Farmer says: “People usually work best at temperatures between 16°C and 24°C, although this varies depending on the type of work being carried out. Strenuous work is naturally better performed at slightly lower temperatures than office work.” She adds that the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers recommends the following temperatures: heavy work in factories: 13°C; light work in factories: 16°C; hospital wards and shops: 18°C; offices and dining rooms: 20°C.
Health and safety risks
Temperatures that vary too much from the norm can become a health and safety issue. Workers who get too hot could experience dizziness, fainting or even heat cramps. In very hot conditions, a person’s blood temperature rises, and if it exceeds 39°C, there is a risk of heat stroke or collapse. Delirium or confusion may occur above 41°C, and blood temperatures at this level can prove fatal.
But even on the lower end of hot temperatures, as the 2015 survey noted, heat leads to a loss of concentration and increased tiredness, which means workers are more likely to put themselves and others at risk. Working in the sun also increases the risk of skin cancer. Therefore, as Farmer highlights, “employers have a duty of care to ensure no one works in unsafe or unhealthy conditions, including cold weather”.
Stevens thinks the same and says employers should also be aware of the effects of heat stress on employees and “look to reduce the risks where possible by removing or reducing sources of heat”. He cites various practical steps suggested by the HSE that include controlling the temperature, providing mechanical aids, preventing dehydration, providing PPE, training, acclimatisation, identifying those at risk, and monitoring health.
Beyond that come workplace risk assessments to assess the effects of temperature on workers. So, where an employer identifies a particular hazard with the temperature – for example, an upcoming heatwave or cold spell – Farmer says “employers should consider how this can best be managed in the workplace and should discuss proposals with their employees”.
On top of the risk assessment, Stevens warns employers to be aware of their obligations under the Equality Act 2010, “particularly with reference to the obligation to make reasonable adjustments in respect of any elements of a job that places a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage compared to someone who is not disabled”. As he points out: “It may be that additional measures or actions need to be put in place to combat the challenges posed by working in hot conditions.”
Employees can act
If employees feel that the temperature at work is not ‘reasonable’, they can raise the matter with their employer. But as Farmer explains: “Temperature may be a bigger issue for an employee with a medical condition. By way of example, employees experiencing menopausal symptoms will often report having hot flushes and may look to their employer for support. Alternatively, an employee with a chronic chest condition may struggle when temperatures drop, and so feel too cold.” From her perspective, when made aware of an employee’s medical condition, an employer should carry out a risk assessment to identify and address any specific risks to their health. This may result in physical adjustments being put in place, such as temperature control or providing an electric fan.
But if an employee doesn’t feel appropriately supported in the workplace, Farmer says there are a number of potential claims that could be brought in an employment tribunal, including a claim for constructive dismissal. This occurs when, as she outlines, “an employee resigns in response to conduct by their employer that they believe amounts to a repudiatory breach of contract”.
Stevens looks at the problem from another angle and refers to section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996. This gives employees and workers the means to contest the adequacy and/or suitability of safety arrangements without fear of recriminations such as getting sacked or transferred, or suffering detriment, including the loss of wages.
It also means workers don’t have to wait until they, or someone else, suffer injury before they can take action to get suitably safe working conditions.
For Stevens, section 44 “might include circumstances where an employee reasonably believes that the temperature in the workplace is so low or high as to create serious and imminent danger”.
Farmer thinks along similar lines and says a failure by the employer to adequately address the risks presented by workplace temperature, which results in an injury, may lead to a claim for compensation owing to the employer not fulfilling its duty of care. This is why she says “employers must take extra precautions to keep employees safe from harm, and these responsibilities cover where and when the work is carried out, the clothes and equipment provided to the employee, and the need for training to be given in advance”.
Bad weather days
Apart from affecting the workplace, temperature can also be an issue before employees even get to work. The ‘Beast from the East’ is a moniker often applied to cold air coming to the UK from the Arctic or Russia. Similarly, the UK has heatwaves, as we saw last summer when temperatures hit 40.3°C, a new record.
But whether as a result of global warming or general cyclical changes, we are indeed seeing more extreme weather in the UK, and this may lead to employees feeling unable, or possibly even unwilling, to go to work.
Practically speaking, employers will need to address a number of issues that arise here. This is why both Farmer and Stevens say that employers should have a strategy in place to deal with the effects of a reduced workforce on a bad weather day, as well as the HR and payroll issues that follow on.
Farmer says apart from weather, the policy should address travel disruption to set out what should happen if an employee cannot make it into work because of extreme weather, or any other reasons for non-attendance, such as transport strikes.
She says: “The starting position is that employees should make reasonable efforts to get into work, failing which they may be subject to disciplinary action. But where this isn’t possible, alternative working arrangements may need to be considered. Employers should therefore ensure that the policy details options such as working from home and changes to working patterns.”
Stevens expands on this and adds the efforts that employees should make, including “taking a different route to work or using alternative transport, such as lift sharing, public transport, or walking”. He adds: “Policies might also state that employees should listen out for information about local conditions and transport services; detail the circumstances in which working from home will be authorised; and when absences will be paid or unpaid.”
Some might be astonished to know that there is no automatic right to payment for time lost due to severe weather conditions or other travel difficulties. Payment will depend on the terms of the employment contract. But as Stevens says: “Employees who find it impossible to reach the office and who cannot work from home will usually be expected to take annual leave. However, employers may also suggest that if an employee does not want to take annual or unpaid leave, they could make up the lost time on other days.”
That said, employers should keep in mind the effect of reducing pay on normally valued employees. This is because it may create animosity between employees who were able to work from home and still be paid and those who were not and lost out. But for Stevens, there may also be a “risk of creating negative publicity by reducing pay for reasons outside of an individual’s control.” And to emphasise his point, he talks of Acas guidelines which state that “the treatment of bad weather and travel disruption can be an opportunity for an employer to enhance staff morale and productivity by the way it is handled”.
Lastly, it shouldn’t be forgotten that employees may have childcare issues due to school closures and this, in Stevens’ view, is “likely to constitute a domestic emergency, entitling the employee to take unpaid leave in order to look after their children or other dependents”.
While employees are entitled to a reasonable amount of time off to deal with the emergency, there is no obligation on an employer to pay them during this leave.
Like it or not, our climate is changing. Regardless, it’s a fact that employees work best and are more productive when comfortable. Maintaining the right temperatures is not an expense – it’s an investment.
But if bad weather strikes, it is makes sense for employers to collaborate with employees wherever possible, be appreciative of those who have made the journey in to work, and seek to agree alternative working arrangements with those who could not.
LATEST COMMENTS ON PRINTWEEK