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UK Heatwave: How can we safeguard workers?

This article was first published by Green World on Thursday 11th August 2022. You can read the original here.

By Ben Gladwin

The July heatwave broke the record for being the hottest temperatures ever experienced in Britain. With temperatures having reached 40.2 degrees in Heathrow London, people were confronted with heat that was debilitating, dangerous, and even potentially deadly. Climate scientists have long predicted that Britain will experience more intense and frequent hot summers. In the immediate aftermath of the July 2022 heat wave they stated that, due to current models for climate change, the UK can no longer be considered a cold country, recommending that the Government set out a plan to adapt to the new reality of extreme heat. Despite this, our workplaces are still lacking when it comes to providing conducive and safe conditions for UK workers. 

The impact of the July heat wave on schools gives us an insight into how the increasing intensity of summer temperatures affects different workers in a close environment. Schools employ more than teachers; site management, caters, educational assistants and even construction workers are all part of the daily running of schools. Classrooms are spaces which can be quite confined, with up to 30 or more students plus education staff. In hot weather, and if they lack ventilation, classroom temperatures can reach high temperatures with consequences for students and staff. More than that, school catering staff working with hot implements can also add to the pressure of working in heat, and site management workers in outdoor settings also run a risk of exposure to heat and sun.

During the heat wave in July, head teachers and the National Education Union sent a warning to the Department for Education that many school buildings across the country weren’t fit for purpose for working in extreme temperatures due to lack of air conditioning and poor ventilation. 

Given the lack of existing framework, schools were left to their own discretion as to what measures to take such as stopping physical activities such as sports days, providing water for staff and students, and even school closures. For the schools that stayed open, the government inspection body Ofsted announced that inspections would still take place for schools scheduled for an inspection, which even at times of ‘normal’ temperatures add to the stress and workload of school staff. To be inspected in 40-degree heat puts schools under even greater pressure. Although Ofsted stated that schools could request to defer inspections, these requests would be considered they would not be deferred for certain.

All this left schools with a confusing framework with which to decide how to adapt to the heat wave. Some schools closed – the Telegraph reported 200 schools nationally – while others remained open. Perhaps predictably, student attendance dropped with roughly one-third of pupils not attending school. The impact of this on lessons and teachers’ planning would be to add stress as planning for a lesson for 30 pupils, and then only having half turn up means that activities need changing and the lesson needs adapting. 

Consideration needs to be taken too for pupils’ learning if they remain at home during extreme weather events. The pandemic saw schools close and online learning become a substitute for learning in the classroom – this is very difficult to adapt for short-term situations such as heat waves.     

Issues therefore arise around protection for workers in extreme weather – this is crucial, as various health problems can arise if people are exposed to heat for too long. Dizziness, fainting, confusion, and if blood temperature exceeds 39 degrees, there is a high risk of heat stroke. Given the increasing evidence that Britain will experience more extreme and more frequent heatwaves, it would seem logical that the Government puts in place a framework for adapting workplaces. 

Countries within the EU have taken measures – Germany has a defined maximum temperature of 26 degrees whereby the employer must take action such as providing drinking water, although this is not enshrined in law. Depending on the federal state in Germany, schools can close due to hot temperatures – called Hitzefrei, which translates as ‘heat free’ – but this is down to the discretion of the school. Spain has a legal requirement of physical work between 14 and 25 degrees, which, if not met by the employer, can lead to an official complaint by the workforce to the Labour and Security Inspection.

Currently, very few legal frameworks exist in the UK beyond the Government Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) Workplace Regulations of 1992. The regulations state that workplace temperatures must be ‘reasonable’, without stating what a maximum temperature would be. Employers are also not legally obliged to send workers home if the workplace is too hot. The Government’s own website recommends a minimum temperature in the workplace where employees are engaged in physical work.

As the example of schools shows, workers will be faced with increasing temperatures and more extreme heat in the summer in the coming decades. Our current legislative framework doesn’t cover the reality of working in a world where summer temperatures can reach the mid to high 30s and, even as we saw in July, low 40s. 

Action needs to be taken to ensure that workers are safe to work in environments which are conducive to such extremes. This needs to include ventilation in areas such as classrooms, as well as a legal maximum temperature beyond which it is no longer considered reasonable to work. The TUC has already called for measures to be taken, but it is up to workers to organise if they want to protect themselves in an age of climate extremes.