The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has launched a 'cool work' campaign urging employers to allow workers to wear more casual dress than usual in a bid to survive the hot summer weather, after Japanese employers agreed to do so. The TUC has previously called for a legal maximum temperature but still none exists.
The minimum temperature permitted in offices is 16oC (61oF) and 13oC (55oF) for those doing strenuous work. In campaigns in 2002 and 2005 the TUC has argued that soaring heat can cause concentration lapses, accidents and slip-ups, with increased irritability raising the likelihood of workplace violence.
This year the union is encouraging employers to be flexible when it comes to dressing for the heat. "We'd like British bosses to work cool and take the Japanese Premier's advice and allow their staff to dress down a little for summer," said TUC general secretary Brendan Barber. "Clearly vest tops and shorts are not suitable attire for all front line staff, but those not dealing with the public should be able to discard their tights, ties and suits. We're calling on bosses to let their staff loosen their collars and cool down while the heatwave continues."
According to Dr Simon Joyston-Bechal, who heads the Health and Safety Team at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, there is already some legal protection of workers, though it remains subject to interpretation.
The Workplace Regulations of 1992 say that during working hours the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings must be "reasonable". There is also a requirement for "sufficient" thermometers to be provided so that employees can easily ascertain what the temperature is.
Joyston-Bechal said that a legal maximum would be difficult to set, since some work demands
hot conditions, such as furnace work, tunnelling work or working in a kitchen. "There are very good reasons why there is no maximum level in law," he said.
"The regulatory impact of a work ban when the thermometer reaches a certain level would be enormous," he continued. "Could a ban apply just to offices? Possibly, but would that be fair to other workers?"
Employees have another safeguard, though. The Health and Safety Executive's Code of Practice stipulates that if more than 10% of employees in an air-conditioned office are complaining of being too hot, employers should conduct a risk assessment to establish employees' "thermal comfort" and to take steps to improve this. The action is not compulsory.
If an office is naturally ventilated the number complaining must be 15%, and in retail, warehousing and factories it must be 20%.