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Should workplaces have a maximum temperature?

As temperatures climbed above 30 degrees Celsius across many parts of Britain this week, workers in offices without air conditioning became hot and irritable. The TUC renewed calls today for a legal maximum temperature to ban sweatshop conditions.14 Jul 2005

There is a legal minimum indoor temperature: 13oC (55oF) for those doing strenuous work, 16oC (61oF) for those behind a desk. But there is no equivalent if it gets too hot – which is farcical and dangerous, according to the Trades Union Congress.

The TUC last campaigned for a maximum temperature in 2002. OUT-LAW spoke to the TUC today to see what had changed, prompted by a reader in a "sweltering" office who wanted to know about her employer's duties.

The desk-bound employee, who asked not to be named, said: "I have so far never found an office where the usual temperature is comfortable. They are all too cold in winter and too hot in summer. It's horrid."

The TUC says nothing has changed since 2002 and its demands remain the same. Roasting offices cause a lack of concentration and nasty accidents, with slips and trips the major injury, it says. And prolonged concentration at a VDU in a heat wave will have workers stressed, tense, exhausted and probably suffering headaches and eye strain. It also warns that irritability raises the incidence of violence.

For those doing manual work, the thermal threats are said by the TUC to be even worse: fatigue, extra strain on the heart and lungs, dizziness and fainting, or heat cramps due to loss of water and salt. Hot, dry air can increase the risk of eye and throat infections, and breathing problems such as asthma and rhinitis.

TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said today: "Employees should not have to suffer in sweat at work. There is a legal responsibility on employers to make their staff safe but this should be backed up with a legal limit on how much heat workers have to bear."

The TUC wants a maximum working temperature of 30oC (86oF) – and 27oC (81oF) for those doing strenuous work. When the heat hits the maximum, employers should reduce the temperature. It recommends fans or air conditioning. Workers whose exposure to heat cannot be reduced should be provided with adequate breaks and offered job rotation, it suggests.

Mr Barber continued: "There are simple practical steps employers can take to make their staff comfortable like making sure water is available, relaxing dress codes and being flexible about people arriving or leaving earlier or later to avoid transport congestion."

But Dr Simon Joyston-Bechal, who heads the Health and Safety Team at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, says there is already some protection against overheating.

He points to Workplace Regulations of 1992 which stipulate 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. These Regulations are accompanied by an HSE Approved Code of Practice which stipulates that, "where a reasonably comfortable temperature cannot be achieved throughout a workroom, local heating or cooling (as appropriate) should be provided." It adds that in extremely hot weather, fans and increased ventilation can be used instead of air conditioning.

Guidance from the Health and Safety Executive overlaps with the TUC's recommendations. Among the tips: air conditioning, fans, windows that can be opened, shades and blinds, workstations sited away from direct sunlight, early starts to avoid the highest temperatures, relaxed dress codes and breaks for cold drinks.

"There are very good reasons why there is no maximum level in law," said Dr Joyston-Bechal, pointing out that many non-office jobs necessarily expose people to heat – be it furnace work, tunnelling work, kitchen work or open air work in summer. It is not just a question of temperature – other key factors are humidity, ventilation, work activity, the need to wear certain clothing or uniform and exposure to sunlight."

"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?"

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