The minister in charge of the government’s emergency response to the heatwave has defended the UK’s vague laws about maximum temperatures at work.
Kit Malthouse, who chaired chaired this weekend’s meeting of the Cobra emergency committee, cited the difference in temperature between offices and blast-furnace facilities as a reason why a maximum limit could be unworkable.
Mr Malthouse was asked in the Commons by Labour MP Nadia Whittome whether the government would “legislate for maximum working temperatures” – a key demand of trade unions in light of the heatwave.
The Trades Union Congress has previously called for a maximum temperature of 30°C, or 27°C for those doing strenuous work, while the GMB union on Monday union said 25°C should be the maximum.
Responding for the government, Cabinet Office minister Mr Malthouse replied: “The law as it stands says that employers have an obligation to maintain a reasonable temperature at work.
“They haven’t defined it because circumstances may change, so if you are working in front of a blast furnace that is different from working in an office.
“What we may find, certainly for many people during this period, that actually being at work is cooler than being at home.”
Under existing UK law, employers must make sure indoor workplaces stay at a “reasonable” temperature and also manage the risk of working outdoors in the heat.
And under section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 workers also have the right to withdraw from and to refuse to return to a workplace that is unsafe.
Some countries in Europe and around the world have maximum workplace temperatures written into law or collective agreements.
These laws usually apply to particular kinds of work, or have contextual conditions – a simple solution to the point about blast-furnaces raised by the minister.
According to figures collated by the House of Commons library, in Spain places where sedentary of light work take place must be between 17°C and 27°C.
The Spanish laws are applied while taking into account “limitations or conditions resulting from the particular characteristics of the workplace”.
In Germany, a maximum temperature of 26°C is the norm, though this can be exceeded in certain conditions – such as if the outside temperature is higher.
Trades Union Congress general secretary, Frances O’Grady said: “We all love it when the sun comes out, but working in sweltering conditions in a baking shop or stifling office can be unbearable and dangerous. Indoor workplaces should be kept cool, with relaxed dress codes and flexible working to make use of the coolest hours of the day.
“Bosses must make sure outdoor workers are protected with regular breaks, lots of fluids, plenty of sunscreen and the right protective clothing.”