Heatwave hell – know your working rights!

working in a heatwave

25th July 2023

The severe heatwaves across many European countries during the summer of 2023 have wreaked havoc with temperatures hitting record levels. The mercury levels, in some areas, have risen to close to 48 degrees celsius, almost on par with Death Valley, California and Xinjiang, China. And given that red weather alerts have been issued in Italy for no less than 16 cities, the extreme heat has to be taken seriously by companies looking to protect contractors. We look at what the legislation says…

Even the UK, not used to the same levels of stifling weather seen on the continent, witnessed exceptionally high temperatures in July 2023, with Coningsby in Lincolnshire’s 40-plus degrees an all-time record. This has focused attention on current legislation surrounding high temperatures and what is deemed to be too hot to work. But currently, there is no upper limit in the UK, just guidance that temperatures should not fall below 16 degrees, or 13 if the work is physically demanding. What constitutes ‘comfortable’ in the workplace is clearly one concept that needs to be addressed in the future.

The weather was deemed to be so severe that the GMB trade union, which represents the interests of over half a million UK workers, called for the introduction of a ‘too hot to work law’, stipulating for a top allowable temperature of 25 degrees and allowing workers to wear cooler clothes and take extra breaks to cope with the hot weather. Lynsey Mann, the GMB’s health and safety officer, said, “This hot weather is great for being on a sun lounger, but if you’re trying to work though it’s no joke. Bosses need to do everything possible to keep workplaces cool, and more importantly, safe.”

Heat stress afflicting EU and UK contractors

Interestingly, while there is no EU legislation that covers dangerously high temperatures, some countries have sought to protect workers and minimise any health risk. Although a maximum temperature is not stipulated in its ‘code du travail’, in France, employers must make workplace conditions safe. For example, it is mandatory for construction sector employers to provide workers and contractors with three litres of water per day (and since 2021, they need to provide non-plastic water bottles).

Spain too has also endured baking temperatures throughout the summer. La Palma in the Canary Islands has become the latest victim of the heat, with wildfires on the rampage and thousands of people having to flee their homes. The Iberian country does however regulate this more closely with the National Institute for Hygiene and Safety at Work enforcing a 17-27 degree temperature band for office work and 14-25 degrees applicable for light work. Organisations must adhere to the rules or risk being reported to unions. Within larger firms, the responsibility lies with Health & Safety.

And what of Italy, the country that is metaphorically ‘melting’ under the intensity of the ‘Cerberus’ heatwave? You probably won’t be surprised to learn, that much like its neighbours, it also doesn’t have a temperature maximum enshrined in law. However, a decision by the country’s court of appeal in 2015 does entitle workers to stop working if they feel that conditions are not safe, which includes excessively high temperatures (35 degrees being the baseline number). Italian workers can also ask to be excused from their duties if, for example, the air conditioning fails to work.

Germany is in the same boat as most of the other European countries mentioned above. Once again, while there is no legally binding regulation, if the temperature exceeds 26 degrees, then the onus falls on the employer to ensure safe working conditions. Organisations need to provide water and offer breaks if temperatures soar to 30 degrees and above, with 35 seen as the point of unsuitability. That does not mean that workers can vacate the premises, rather employers must cool things down!

In light of the recent spate of heatwaves in 2023, temperatures are potentially becoming increasingly difficult for workers. We strongly recommend contractors talk to their recruitment firms and/or end clients if conditions are dangerous in whichever country they are based. And of course, they must remain tax compliant! Our 6CATS International specialists are always here to advise you.

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