Should we have to work in extreme temperatures?

Does the law protect workers enough when it comes to heat? Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Does the law protect workers enough when it comes to heat? Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Recent record-breakingly hot weather has left millions of people working in what could be deemed dangerous conditions and more needs to be done to lift the pressure off them.

"I thought he was going to collapse today, I honestly do," my husband (who renovates council properties) said of his colleague as he collapsed on the sofa on Thursday, just before a tremendous clap of thunder broke the seal on the darkening sky, opening the heavens and releasing a downpour of cool, sweet water.

The workers, one of whom has a health condition, had been slaving away in a property with no electricity (therefore no way of operating fans) as the mercury soared to 39C - inside! Like many employees with manual jobs, these poor chaps have been battling in the heat with little chance of respite. When there are deadlines to hit what are they to do but grit their teeth, dig deep into that British resolve, keep calm and carry on?

Thankfully this particular council has relaxed its dresscode, so they were able to do away with the heavy duty, knee-patched trousers, switching to shorts (at their own risk of course) but no one advised them to take regular breaks. Noone gave them leave to rest. There was no information at all on the procedures and protocol they should follow.

And they're not alone. Chefs. Road workers. Factory workers et al. How many of them have been left to fester in horrendous conditions this week? It's alright for me, sitting in my, quite frankly, igloo-like office, turning blue under the air-con, but the prospect of heat stroke and heat exhaustion, for what's likely millions of people carrying out their jobs over the past few days, is no laughing matter.

If we listen to climate experts, snow-plunged winters and hellish summers will no longer be anomalies as the years tick by. They won't be anecdotes ('ooh do you remember the hot summer of 2004?') but a fact of life we, and our increasingly overburdened, overwhelmed and under-funded infrastructure must deal with.

Under HSE regulations (as set out in 1992) there are currently no lower or upper temperature limits for places of work, with employers simply legally obliged to provide conditions which are 'reasonable' - whatever that means.

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The HSE suggests, but doesn't demand, a lower limit of 16C or 13C for those doing physical or rigorous activity, while the body says a 'meaningful figure' cannot be placed at the upper end of the scale due to high temperatures is some factories etc.

Given the severity of days recently, trade body the TUC has called upon the government to set maximum working temperatures at 30C, or 27C for strenuous jobs (some 10C less than conditions seen over the past week), with employers then obliged to take measures to cool workplaces down as soon as a temperature of 24C is reached.

I can't help thinking this is pie in the sky though. Being married to someone who has a physical job, and having friends who work in the catering industry, I see first-hand how truly awful it is for them when the heat climbs, but on the other hand, how can we operate as a country if everyone downs tools? Especially faced with this incongruous weather becoming the new norm. Many employers, particularly SMEs, and start-ups, can ill afford to lose staff to the heat.

Wouldn't it be more practical for the government to oblige employers to formalise practical, easy-to-understand, policies for their workers in the event of 'freak' weather? My husband is an old-school grafter who will quite frankly 'hop till he drops' and there are so many like him. But if he had a document stating that he wouldn't be required to work in a temperature of xxC if there is no running water or electricity (for fans), and must legally take xx minute breaks every xx minutes in temperatures exceeding xC, it would take away that element of dented pride which is so common in the trades if they can't carry on with a job. I also think air conditioning should be a legal requirement in professionally used kitchens, where the heat is unbearable often even in the cooler months. Currently catering kitchens are called to have 'adequate ventilation' to carry away harmful fumes and excess heat, but I've yet to visit a kitchen, even in the cooler months, where the working conditions are what could be reasonably called 'comfortable'.

Employers should also, I think, be required to allow flexible working hours and relaxed dresscodes (but we're not talking bikinis and Hawaiian shirts here) in extreme heat where it is safe to do so. It's just all about having a bit of common sense really.

Is it likely we'll see upper and lower heat conditions introduced at work? I don't think so, but the people in power must lobby for change - real change that protects the health of workers while ensuring the country doesn't come to a standstill as we stagger towards a new climatic era.