Working in a heatwave: It ain't half hot (at work)

Thursday 9th August | News

by Tom Sutherland

So, the heatwave might finally be over. Or is it? The weather forecast hasn't exactly been bullet-proof recently. I've walked to work recently sheltering from the rain under an umbrella (despite predicted 34 degree sunshine) and towed an umbrella around during a day so ice cream-meltingly warm that it was worthy of Majorca...

Whichever way, I've received multiple (only partially jokey) messages asking whether it is 'too hot' to work or whether an employer's dress code is 'automatically waived' when it gets 'too hot'.

Unfortunately, from their point of view at least, there is no maximum temperature at which employers have to crack out the ice cream (albeit this isn't the worst thing to consider morale wise!) and/or send employees home. Instead, employers simply have to ensure they comply with their duty to safeguard employee wellbeing under Health and Safety regulations. Some methods of doing this can include ensuring there is adequate drinking water, lengthening rest breaks (or providing additional rest breaks) for employees carrying out physical activities and/or providing fans for employees in hot environments. However, there are no mandatory requirements upon employers to cool things down other than to act to avoid foreseeable health risks to staff.

Overall, however, it would take extraordinary circumstances for a situation to arise in which an employer hasto send employees home due to temperature and, in fact, if they did so (no doubt with the employee in agreement), the employee wouldn't necessarily be entitled to pay for the proportion of the day they didn't work!

From an employer side of things, you tend to learn of some rather inventive (read: doubtful) reasons for short-notice 'sickness absence' during warm periods which have included (whilst working for a previous firm):

  • (a) not being able to get to work due to it being 'dangerously hot' in the car because the air conditioning 'doesn't work effectively';
  • (b) 'lacking energy' due to sunburn at a barbeque the day before; and
  • (c) having to stay at home to ensure the pet rabbit 'had enough water to drink in the heat'.

The irony is that only one of the above examples could potentially constitute sickness absence (i.e. absence due to health), as the other two reasons ((a) and (c)) would be more correctly described as short-notice unpaid leave requests.

Naturally, it is a (mainly accurate) stereotype that disingenuous sickness absence increases during warm weather and, obviously, it is understood that planning the barbeque to end all barbeques is tempting in warm weekday weather but employers have little sympathy when an employee is caught out and, of course, it can be fairly obvious when an employee has a habit of taking random 1 day sickness absences during warm days. Beware the Facebook photograph showing you grinning at the camera in a 'hot chef at work' apron next to a barbeque and trying to explain how you felt well enough to hold a barbeque by 6pm that same day!

Overall, then, common sense is required on both sides. Whilst employers understand that requests for annual leave will increase during warm weather, they are highly unlikely to understand disingenuous sickness absence during sunny days and, whilst employers may expect cooler temperatures at work and/or a relaxed dress code, that is dependent on the type of work in question.

As above, however, it may well be that the 'heatwave' is now over and everyone can start grumbling about the cold, cloudy summer days. Workplace ice cream is still very welcome though! Bring me cornetto, bring it to me...

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