Blowing Hot & Cold: Legal Working Temperatures in the UK

emily gordon brown
Emily Gordon BrownLegal Assessment Specialist @ Lawhive
Updated on 14th November 2023

Working in overly hot or cold temperatures can be uncomfortable and even hazardous to keeping productivity levels up. 

And with the UK’s changing weather patterns, it can often feel like employers are constantly catching us off-guard with their heating systems - one day, it’s an ice box; the next, we’re sweltering in our clothes! 

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So, what are your rights if you find yourself freezing at work? And could there even be potential legal implications of working in these temperatures? 

In this article, we will explore: 

  • The ins and outs of workplace temperature regulation here in the UK.

  • Tips for employers on working temperatures

  • Possible legal consequences for employees

In most workplaces in the UK, there aren't any specific legal requirements for the minimum or maximum working temperatures. Instead, we rely on general guidelines and principles to govern working conditions. However, this doesn't mean that employers can neglect providing a comfortable and safe working environment.

When it comes to minimum temperatures, the key is to keep indoor workspaces comfortable. There is no specific temperature required by law, but employers should aim for a pleasant indoor environment.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) suggests a minimum temperature of 16°C or 13°C for physically demanding work. 

On the flip side, there isn't a specific legal maximum temperature limit in the UK. However, the law does require employers to keep a reasonable working environment. So, when the weather gets scorching, employers should take measures to ensure their staff's comfort and well-being. This includes providing ventilation, shade, and access to drinking water to help them cope with the heat.

Duty of care and working temperatures

Employers are responsible for ensuring a safe and comfortable working environment, which includes maintaining appropriate temperatures. This includes monitoring and managing working conditions to ensure they remain within reasonable limits. Employers should conduct risk assessments to identify and minimise temperature-related risks. 

They are also expected to take action if employees are exposed to extreme temperatures that could impact their health, well-being, or productivity. This may involve providing additional heating or cooling, allowing flexible working hours during extreme weather, or offering suitable workwear to help employees manage temperature extremes.

In situations where employees or employers face challenges related to workplace temperature or safety, seeking legal guidance from professionals specialising in grievance procedures is crucial. 

Health and safety at work and workplace temperatures

In the UK, keeping workers safe and healthy is a top priority, and workplace temperatures play a crucial role in achieving that. While there aren't specific laws dictating exact temperature limits, employers have a legal obligation under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 to provide a safe working environment. This includes maintaining suitable temperature conditions that don't endanger employees' well-being.

To meet these obligations, employers need to comply with the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. Getting a solicitor experienced in health and safety compliance is also helpful. 

Can an employee refuse to work if it’s too hot or cold?

Employees have the right to refuse work if the workplace temperature poses a risk to their health and safety. 

Employers must do risk assessments, including looking at risks related to temperature. If the assessments show employees' concerns are valid, the employer should take action to make things better. This might mean giving more heating or cooling or doing other things to make sure the workplace is comfortable.

It's better to talk to your employer first to find practical ways to deal with the problem. If there's no solution, employees should get advice from their trade union or the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to protect their rights and stay safe.

Risks of extreme temperatures in the workplace

Some of the risks of extreme temperatures in the workplace include:

Dehydration

Dehydration is common while doing mentally or physically demanding tasks. When it's hot, your body sweats to cool down, causing fluid and electrolyte loss. It can make you feel dizzy, tired, and confused, and in severe cases, even lead to heatstroke. That's why employers should provide access to drinking water and encourage regular breaks to stay hydrated, especially in hot weather.

Sun Exposure

Working outdoors can expose employees to harmful UV rays. Prolonged sun exposure without protection increases the risk of skin damage, including sunburn, ageing, and cancer. Employers should provide shaded areas, sunscreen, hats, and sunglasses to protect outdoor workers.

Heat Stress

Heat stress can lead to symptoms such as excessive sweating, fast heart rate, feeling sick, and confusion. If severe, it can escalate to heat exhaustion or even heatstroke, which requires immediate medical attention. Employers should prevent heat stress by reducing physical exertion during the hottest times and providing cooling facilities.

Cold Stress

Cold working environments carry risks, as exposure to low temperatures can cause cold stress and related symptoms such as frostbite, hypothermia, and numbness. Employers must provide warm clothing, heated rest areas, and regular breaks in heated spaces during extreme cold weather.

Tips for employers on working temperatures

Employers should take several necessary steps to ensure safe and comfortable working temperatures for their employees. Here are some tips:

  1. Monitor and Control: Use tools like thermometers and humidity monitors to assess. Implement climate control systems, if possible, for effective temperature regulation.

  2. Provide Adequate Ventilation: Ensure that workspaces have proper ventilation to help maintain a comfortable temperature. Adequate airflow can reduce heat or cold buildup and improve overall air quality.

  3. Dress Code Flexibility: Offer employees flexibility in their dress code, especially in hot weather. Allowing lighter clothing during the summer can help employees stay cool. Conversely, during colder months, encourage layering to keep warm.

  4. Heating and Cooling Facilities: Provide heating and cooling facilities in work areas. Fans, air conditioning, or space heaters can help control temperature extremes. Ensure that employees have access to these facilities as needed.

  5. Regular Breaks: Encourage and schedule regular breaks, especially during extreme temperatures. This allows employees to cool down or warm up as necessary. Breaks also help prevent the adverse health effects of prolonged exposure to extreme temperatures.

  6. Hydration and Nutrition: Promote hydration and a balanced diet. In hot weather, encourage drinking water regularly. In cold weather, provide access to hot beverages like tea or coffee to help employees stay warm from the inside.

  7. Educate Employees: Train employees to recognise signs of temperature-related stress and how to respond. Educate them about the importance of proper clothing, hydration, and breaks.

  8. Risk Assessments: Conduct regular risk assessments to identify and address specific temperature-related hazards in the workplace. These assessments should consider both hot and cold weather risks.

  9. Emergency Protocols: Develop and communicate emergency protocols for extreme temperature conditions. Employees should know what to do in case of heat exhaustion, heatstroke, frostbite, or hypothermia.

  10. Flexible Hours: In some cases, consider offering flexible working hours to help employees avoid the hottest or coldest parts of the day. This can be particularly helpful for outdoor workers.

  11. Protective Gear: If the work environment is inherently hot or cold, provide appropriate protective gear. This includes insulated clothing for cold environments and lightweight, breathable gear for hot conditions.

  12. Employee Feedback: Encourage employees to provide feedback on working conditions. This can help identify areas that need improvement and promote a collaborative approach to managing workplace temperatures.

Remember that maintaining comfortable working temperatures not only promotes employee well-being but also boosts productivity and safety. By taking these steps, employers can create a more comfortable and conducive work environment.

It's not common for employees to take legal action due to workplace temperature unless the situations are very extreme. However there are legal consequences that can arise if an employer significantly neglects both health and safety laws or their duty of care. These are:

  1. Breach of Statutory Duty: Employers can be held liable for negligence if employees are harmed by extreme temperatures, resulting in fines, compensation claims, or penalties.

  2. Breach of Health and Safety Law: Failure to comply with these laws can result in penalties such as fines, prohibition notices, or even criminal charges for severe breaches that harm employees.

Conclusion

In conclusion, employers have to maintain comfortable working temperatures for their employees. And adhering to the guidance of the Health and Safety Executive can significantly reduce the likelihood of legal violations and breaching health and safety obligations.

Our expert employment solicitors and lawyers are on hand to help with fast, affordable help in workplace matters across the UK. For further help relating to an employer’s duty of care and safe working conditions, please contact us for more information.

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