Climate change and the world of work: Keeping cool with employees

July 2022 saw the UK’s first red extreme heat warning as unprecedented temperatures hit parts of the globe. A record 40.2°C was recorded at Heathrow, beating the previous 2019 record by 1.5°C. Outside of the UK, bleak reports emerged of workers that had died after suffering from heatstroke, including a 56-year-old warehouse worker and 60-year-old street cleaner in Madrid. 

With climate change set to make heat events like this more frequent, employers will face important questions about how to adapt and be more prepared for extreme heat in the long-term.  

Employer’s obligations 

Employers have a duty of care to look after the health and safety of their workforce. When it comes to indoor temperatures, there is no legal upper limit despite calls from unions for this to be introduced. 

In the absence of maximum workplace temperatures, employers will need to work out what is reasonable and keep employees safe. 

Working in a heatwave 

High temperatures can pose serious health-related risks for all workers including dehydration, heatstroke, and respiratory problems. For pregnant or older workers or those with particular medical conditions, these risks may be increased. 

Workers in industries like construction and agriculture that tend to spend longer periods of time outside are likely to be some of the worst affected. They must also contend with the increased risk of sunburn and skin cancer, or worse. Tragedies like those seen in Madrid are a stark reminder of how high the stakes can be for some workers. 

Evidence also suggests that high temperatures are associated with lower levels of productivity and higher workplace accidents. There is therefore a legal, social and financial imperative for employers to consider these challenges. 

What can we learn? 

Whilst the extreme heat we are experiencing in the UK is a relatively new phenomena, for other countries, it is business as normal. Looking at parts of the world with warmer climates, measures for protecting workers in high temperatures include:

  • the provision of water
  • access to air-conditioned resting areas
  • allowing frequent breaks 
  • reducing working hours
  • bans on working under direct sun during the hottest parts of the day
  • relaxed dress codes
  • guidance and training on recognising and preventing heat-related illnesses.  

Given the widespread use of remote working across the UK following the pandemic, some employers have encouraged their workers to work from home during heat waves. However, for those who cannot do their job remotely or in a cool indoor environment, employers will need to manage the risks. With extreme temperatures now likely to occur much more frequently, the events seen this summer may be a wake-up call for many businesses to consider how they might adapt their workplaces for a warmer future. 

In the UK, workers can leave and refuse to return to a workplace if they think there is a real risk of serious and imminent danger. This was a rarely invoked section of the Employment Rights Act which we saw gain increasing momentum during the pandemic. As we start to experience more frequent and intense weather events, will we start to see more individuals relying on this provision to challenge hot workplaces?