Should the UK introduce a maximum working temperature?

Workers will suffer as UK heatwave is forecast to hit 35 degrees next week

Builders break in heat
Builders take a break in soaring temperatures
(Image credit: Carl Court/Getty Images)

Many parts of the UK are currently experiencing a sustained heatwave, with predictions of even hotter temperatures to come.

The Met Office has issued an amber warning for heat for much of the country on Monday when temperatures could reach a sweltering 35C. It said there would need to be “substantial changes in working practices and daily routines” as the soaring heat poses a potential risk to life, said the Daily Mail.

However, stopping work because of temperature extremes is not that simple. Currently there is nothing in UK law that states a maximum (or minimum) working temperature, but the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the national regulator for workplace conditions, says temperatures must be “reasonable” and employers must ensure there is a supply of “clean and fresh air”.

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Unions call for change

The Health and Safety Act states that it's an employer’s duty to ensure the welfare of workers. The HSE recommends several practices for keeping workers safe in hot temperatures, including relaxing formal dress codes, moving desks from hot areas, and changing working hours to cooler times of the day.

Unions though are calling for a legally enforceable limit to working temperatures, something the Trades Union Congress (TUC) described a “major omission”. The TUC is calling for a maximum temperature of 30C for regular indoor work and 27C for strenuous work, although it says employers should act to bring down temperatures if they exceed 24C.

The Unite union said outdoor workers are particularly vulnerable and should be monitored much more closely for signs of exhaustion or heatstroke. They should also be given more frequent rest breaks and somewhere shaded to take them, and if possible they should be allowed to work different hours when the temperature isn’t as high.

What would happen if we all stopped working?

A complete down tools by everyone because of the heat would, of course, bring the economy to a shuddering halt.

While there’s no research specifically into what would happen if a legal heat limit stopped many of us from working, similarly to a bank holiday some parts of the economy would benefit and some would lose out.

The Met Office said the impending hot weather will see more people heading to lakes and rivers, as well as the seaside, which presuming those destinations stayed open, could bring a boost to tourism, hospitality and retail services in surrounding areas. The Centre for Economics and Business Research told The Independent in 2020 that bank holidays on average boost retail sales by 15%, but said in a report this year that each bank holiday overall costs the economy £2.3bn, although it conceded that accurately reporting the impact of each one was “difficult”.

Overall, extreme heatwaves have a detrimental effect on economies, wrote Derek Lemoine, associate professor of economics at the University of Arizona, on The Conversation. He said US research shows in general that economic activity falls as temperatures rise. “Workers are less productive when it’s hotter out,” he said. “As temperatures rise, economies will continue to suffer.”

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