UK heatwave: When is it too hot to work? Can offices and schools close?

What are the rules surrounding offices and schools closing in a heatwave? (Getty Images)
What are the rules surrounding offices and schools closing in a heatwave? (Getty Images)

The UK is in the grips of a heatwave with schools and offices baking as the mercury continues to climb to sizzling highs.

Temperatures are predicted to reach 35C in some parts of the country this week, leaving many employees sweating into their laptops, but how hot does it need to be before workers should be sent home by their employers?

And is there a maximum temperature before sweltering school pupils are sent home in the heat?

Workplace guidance during a heatwave

Earlier this week the TUC urged employers to make sure their staff are protected from the sun and heat after the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) issued a health alert.

"Working in hot weather can lead to dehydration, muscle cramps, rashes, fainting, and – in the most extreme cases – loss of consciousness," the TUC says.

While you might currently be baking in the boardroom, the idea that you can demand your boss send you home from work when it reaches a certain temperature is actually a myth in the UK.

"Much to the dismay of a lot of people, there are no laws that specify a maximum temperature when an office or workplace becomes too hot to continue working," a spokesperson for BPP University Law School tells Yahoo UK.

Read more: Heatwave insomnia: 32 tips and tricks to help you sleep during hot weather

However, while the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), under the Workplace Regulations of 1992, may not state a specific temperature, it does say that conditions in which employees work must be kept at a reasonable and comfortable level.

"Employers have a duty of care to look after their employees, so if several workers complain about the heat, they are legally required to carry out a risk assessment and introduce measures that keep working conditions manageable," the spokesperson continues.

For example, if employers are calling people into the office they must assess the risk of those having to travel on stuffy public transport, and consider whether allowing their employees to work at home will be less harmful.

Or, if office temperatures become hot and uncomfortable, employers should consider adding fans or providing air cooling cabinets to help lower the temperature of the room.

"Employers are also legally required to consider each employee's particular circumstances such as if they have a health condition that will be put at risk if they are working in an environment that is too hot," the spokesperson adds.

Read more: This cooling pillow could help you sleep in the heat: 'like magic'

Employers have a duty of care to ensure staff are working in 'reasonable' conditions. (Getty Images)
Employers have a duty of care to ensure staff are working in 'reasonable' conditions. (Getty Images)

How can you keep cool in the office?

While legally there’s not much you can do in terms of getting sent home in the heat, the HSE does issue advice as to what you can do to “improve thermal comfort in your workplace”.

According to the BPP University Law School

Employees can:

  • Dress more casually (with permission) or remove certain items of clothing to keep cool.

  • Wear high-factor sun cream and take regular breaks in the shade if you work outside.

  • Use a fan to increase airflow in the space in which you work.

  • Drink plenty of water, taking care to avoid caffeine or fizzy drinks in order to stay hydrated.

  • Take more frequent breaks than you usually would, somewhere cool.

  • Work away from an area that is in direct sunlight if you work in an office or at home.

Employers can:

  • Carry out a risk assessment (which they are required to do by law) and introduce any necessary or preventative measures.

  • Give employees frequent rest breaks.

  • Provide access to free water for all employees no matter the work environment.

  • Try and reschedule outdoor work to times of the day that are cooler.

  • Add in shaded areas where employees may be working.

  • Allow employees to dress more casually if it means they will stay cooler.

  • Consider whether work can be done from home, to avoid employees travelling on public transportation.

  • Make sure that rooms in which employees are working are well ventilated and at a comfortable temperature.

  • Educate employees on the signs of heat exhaustion and what they can do to keep cool.

The HSE has further tips and advice on what workers can do to try to stay cool in the heat.

Watch: Ministers drawing up plans for first-ever national heatwave emergency

Laura Rennie, managing director of Arena HR has an alternative suggestion for how employers can help staff in the heat via the granting of 'Sunny Days' leave.

"Hot weather always increases the number of sick days being called in," she explains. "For many, a day off in the blistering sun is just too much of a temptation. To combat this I've seen more and more employers giving their staff 'Sunny Days', which is one or two extra days annual leave that they can use for unexpected warm days.

"In Britain, we really don't know when this is going to happen so having a day or two that can be used at short notice keeps everyone happy," Rennie continues.

"The number of sick days reduces and staff morale increases. It's a win-win."

Read more: What a heatwave does to the body

There's no maximum temperature in which schools should shut. (Getty Images)
There's no maximum temperature in which schools should shut. (Getty Images)

Is there a temperature schools should close?

Soaring classroom temperatures inside combined with baking heat outside could leave some parents questioning whether their children could be sent home in the heat.

But schools are actually subject to the same regulations as workplaces.

This means that although there is a minimum temperature a building must be for work or study to take place, there is no maximum.

Your child's school is responsible for the day-to-day welfare of your children on their grounds, adhering to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidelines.

“At present, in line with rules for workplace guidance under Health and Safety law, there is no recommended maximum temperature weather forecast that would automatically allow schools to close, unlike in the colder months," explains Kristine Scott, head of education and charities at Harrison Clark Rickerbys.

"However, reasonable and sensible adjustments should be made to ensure both pupils and staff are comfortable and safe – particularly in the extreme heat that we’re currently experiencing."

Scott says the school should introduce any steps required to make everyone more comfortable.

"Such as opening all windows and doors, relaxing dress codes or relocating classes altogether if a particular room is too hot, and continue to monitor the situation – in such high temperatures common sense must prevail,” she adds.

The government has also produced some guidelines for schools about what to do in a heatwave.

Protecting children outdoors

  • children should not take part in vigorous physical activity on very hot days, such as when temperatures are in excess of 30°C

  • encourage children playing outdoors to stay in the shade as much as possible

  • children should wear loose, light-coloured clothing to help keep cool and sunhats with wide brims to avoid sunburn

  • use sunscreen (at least factor 15 with UVA protection) to protect skin if children are playing or taking lessons outdoors for more than 20 minutes

  • provide children with plenty of water (such as water from a cold tap) and encourage them to drink more than usual when conditions are hot

Read more: This might help you to sleep better during a heatwave

Protecting children indoors

  • open windows as early as possible in the morning before children arrive, or preferably overnight to allow stored heat to escape from the building – it is important to check insurance conditions and the need for security if windows are to be left open overnight

  • almost close windows when the outdoor air becomes warmer than the air indoors – this should help keep the heat out while allowing adequate ventilation

  • use outdoor sun awnings if available, or close indoor blinds or curtains, but do not let them block window ventilation

  • keep the use of electric lighting to a minimum

  • switch off all electrical equipment, including computers, monitors and printers when not in use – equipment should not be left in ‘standby mode’ as this generates heat

  • if possible, use those classrooms or other spaces which are less likely to overheat, and adjust the layout of teaching spaces to avoid direct sunlight on children

  • oscillating mechanical fans can be used to increase air movement if temperatures are below 35°C – at temperatures above 35°C fans may not prevent heat-related illness and may worsen dehydration

  • if necessary, consider rearranging school start, finish, and play times to avoid teaching during very hot conditions

  • encourage children to eat normally and drink plenty of cool water

For further information on reducing temperatures within school buildings and grounds see UK Health Security Agency’s (UKHSA) Heatwave Plan for England.