A legal maximum working temperature
As the climate crisis continues its dangerous trajectory, the UK is again facing a heatwave and anticipating record-breaking temperatures. Across the country, fans will be turning, ice lollies dripping, while the Daily Mail is recommending that people lick their wrists to keep cool. A question that often gets raised in the summer is: what is the legal maximum working temperature that a workplace is allowed to be?
The short answer is that there is not a legal maximum, at least not explicitly. In every employment contract there are statutory and implied duties that the employer must provide a suitable and safe workplace and take care of the health and safety of its employees. If a workplace is so hot that it risks your health and safety, your employer will be in breach of its obligations to you.
However, there is no set degree Celcius at which employees’ health and safety is deemed to be at risk. The temperature must be ‘reasonable’ under the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations SI 1992/3004, Regulation 7: “During working hours, the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be reasonable”. Again, no specific figure is defined. Unfortunately, other than contractual cases on building cooling systems, the case law appears very thin and of little practical use.
History of the campaign for a legal limit
Why is there no statutory legal maximum working temperature that employers must keep to? After all, there is a legal maximum for transporting cows and pigs (30°C). The issue appears to go back at least three decades – a question was raised on the topic in the House of Lords as early as 1992, and The Trades Union Congress has been calling for a max working temperature since at least 2002. Since then, the TUC and unions including the UK’s three largest (Unite, Unison, and GMB) have continued to call for a legal limit to be introduced.
The issue has reached an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons in 2009, 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2017 with at least 30 MPs signing their support on each occasion. In 2019, the Labour Party manifesto included a commitment to “introduce a legal maximum workplace temperature to protect workers and require employers to take counteracting measures”.
Significantly, workplace temperatures was debated in the House of Commons on 24 February 2010, led by John McDonnell MP. He noted the purpose of the measure:
“It is not about setting a maximum temperature above which an industrial or commercial process should end. It is about setting a temperature above which the employer should take action to overcome the problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) gave a good example, which was the supply of water. Ventilation is another.
I have raised the matter before, but a cretin—I can only describe him thus—attacked me in the media, saying that we were trying to prevent people from working in the sun or in hot conditions. Far from it: we were trying to keep people at work, but to ensure that sufficient compensatory action was taken to prevent them becoming too hot and suffering health problems as a result.”
In 2018, in reaction to the news that heat-related deaths are set to treble by 2050, the Environmental Audit Committee called on the government to:
“Make businesses aware of the threat of heatwaves and the economic consequences. Public Health England should also issue formal guidance to employers to relax dress codes and allow flexible working during heatwaves, and the Government should consult on introducing maximum workplace temperatures, especially for work that involves significant physical effort”.
Unfortunately, discussions in parliament are yet to translate into statutory obligations.
What should the limit be?
Given the need for this legislation, the important question is – what should the prescribed limit be? The limit would of course only apply to indoor work, where temperature can be controlled.
The TUC has proposed that employers should take action when temperatures exceed 24°C, with a legal limit of 30°C, or 27°C for ‘those doing strenuous work’. This is higher than the figure the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE), suggests is a comfortable temperature, which for office work is 20°C. In relation to a maximum temperature, CIBSE has recommended that the number of hours an office is above 28°C should not exceed 1% of the time it is occupied. A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) publication suggests that an “acceptable zone of thermal comfort for most people in the UK lies roughly between 13°C (56°F) and 30°C (86°F)”.
There is no mandated maximum at an EU level, but some EU countries have decided to independently introduce laws to tackle the problem. In Germany, the guidance states a legal maximum working temperature of 26°C, but may be higher in certain circumstances. In Spain, the maximum is 27°C, or 25°C for places of light physical work, but there is a discretion based on the particular characteristics of the workplace.
Many other countries, including the US and Canada, have not yet implemented any restrictions, only going so far as providing guidance to employers on heat illness prevention.
Where laws have been introduced, it appears that there is a consensus that 30°C should be the legal maximum working temperature, at least for office work. We wonder if the government will take some heat until legislation is introduced and that ultimately cooler heads prevail.
This blog was written by Matthew Manso de Zuniga, Paralegal at didlaw.