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If you can't stand the heat…how hot is too hot for the workplace?

As Britain enjoys its traditional two weeks of summer, many workers will be doing their best to cope with the heat. But when does the law step in and what should businesses know?

In short, and to the surprise of many, there are no legally fixed minimum or maximum temperatures for the workplace. The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 do however place a legal obligation on employers to provide a "reasonable" temperature.

When it comes to low temperatures, the position is relatively clear. Health and Safety Executive guidance suggests a workplace should be at least 16 degrees Celsius (around 60 Fahrenheit), but this can fall to a chilly 13 degrees Celsius (around 55 Fahrenheit) if the work involves rigorous physical activity. For reference, the inside of your fridge will be around 4 Celsius.

Higher temperatures however, cause difficulty. Many workplaces will be innately hot - the Health and Safety Executive quote glass works and foundries as environments that will always be warmer than most, and setting an arbitrary "too hot" point wouldn't be workable.

What employers must do, however, is make a suitable assessment of any risk posed by a high temperature workplace, and take action where reasonably practicable. Riskier workplaces will include those with high degrees of physical work, uniform requirements, or the presence of vulnerable people (for example children, and the elderly).

As the temperature rises, the more important it will be to take sensible steps. This can be something as simple as providing easy access to cool water and cold spaces, allowing regular breaks, or making temporary changes to uniform policy. In more industrial settings, changes to PPE can also be practical.

Ultimately, heat related injuries can be serious. Symptoms of heat related stress range from poor concentration and fainting (which is of particular concerns for those operating machinery or vehicles), to heat stroke, convulsions and death. The most recent and severe incident relating to heat is the death of three SAS soldiers during a Brecon Beacons training exercise. In that case, the HSE took the harshest step it could against a body benefiting from crown immunity and stated "but for crown immunity, the Ministry of Defence would have faced prosecution".

Failure to adequately protect the health and welfare of employees and members of the public can result in serious legal liability and criminal charges for both companies and individuals.  Fortunately, some planning and sensible precautions are often all that is needed to keep temperature under control.   

If you have any queries or concerns with regard to corporate criminal liability, please contact a member of our Business Risk and Regulation team.

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