UK weather: What are your rights when working from home during heatwave?

As temperatures rise, The Independent investigates whether companies have a duty of care

Much of the nation is still working from home under lockdown
Much of the nation is still working from home under lockdown

Amid rising temperatures in the UK, Britons have been urged to take precautions when spending time outside in the sun.

With temperatures rising above 30C in some parts of the UK this week, this gives rise to the question: are employers responsible for employees’ welfare while they work from home amid the coronavirus lockdown?

With many people still remote-working based on the latest government advice, the scorching weather, while welcomed by some, could cause issues for others in terms of their working environment.

Those used to working out of air conditioned or temperature controlled offices may find themselves overheating at home.

And, while companies have certain responsibilities when it comes to workers’ physical wellbeing when they’re at work, it can feel unclear whether this same duty of care applies when they are working from their own homes.

Here’s everything you need to know about your employer’s obligations.

What are employers’ normal obligations to staff in terms of temperature?

Employers have a legal obligation to ensure that the temperature in the workplace is “reasonable”, as outlined by the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992.

However, neither a maximum nor minimum temperature is stipulated.

In 2006, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) released a briefing that highlighted the temperatures it believes should be maintained in various workplaces as a matter of health and safety: a maximum temperature of 30C or 27C for those doing strenuous work.

The TUC added that employers should aim to keep temperatures below 24C.

The Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers recommends a working temperature of 13C for those undertaking heavy work in factories; 16C for those doing light work in factories; 18C for those working in hospital wards and shops; and 20C for those working in offices.

Meanwhile, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recommends a minimum temperature of 16C or 13C for those carrying out manual work under its Approved Code of Practice.

The HSE says, if staff are too hot at work, employers should consider: providing fans such as desk, pedestal or ceiling-mounted fans; ensuring that windows can be opened; shading employees from direct sunlight with blinds or by using reflective film on windows to reduce the heating effects of the sun; setting workstations away from direct sunlight; relaxing formal dress codes; allowing sufficient breaks to enable employees to get cold drinks or cool down; providing additional facilities, eg cold water dispensers; introducing flexible working patterns, job rotation or workstation rotation to reduce exposure to heat; placing insulating materials around hot plant and pipes; and providing air-cooling or air-conditioning.

Do these obligations apply when you’re working from home?

By law, employers are responsible for the health and safety of all employees, including those working from home, according to the HSE, although the rules are a little blurry since lockdown forced so many people to work remotely.

Your employer should still check that you feel the work you’re being asked to do at home can be done safely; that you have the right equipment to work safely; and that reasonable adjustments are made for an employee who has a disability. If changes are needed, employers are responsible for making sure they happen, says ACAS.

Employees are responsible for telling their manager about any health and safety risks and any homeworking arrangements that need to change. They could have grounds for claiming a fan on expenses if the temperature at home regularly exceeds what could be considered “reasonable”.

Tom Neil, Acas senior adviser, tells The Independent: “With increasing weather temperatures many workers will find themselves working in hot conditions. In the UK there is no maximum temperature that a workplace is allowed to be, rather, advice from the HSE states ‘during working hours, the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be reasonable’.

“During these exceptional times, with so many people working from home, many will look to how they can keep themselves cool, purchasing a fan for example. As with other workplace necessities, the employer and employee might agree that the employer should supply them or the employee might already have everything necessary, or may need certain extras that the employer may be able to provide.”

There are things you can do to yourself to cool down at home. The HSE recommends using window blinds to block out the sun, drinking plenty of water, using a desk or pedestal fan, working away from direct sunlight where possible, and taking regular breaks to cool down.

Should your employer provide specialist equipment?

Employers are responsible for the equipment and technology they give employees – such as a company laptop – so they can work effectively from home, says ACAS.

They should discuss equipment and technology needs with the employee and support them in setting up any new equipment or technology.

Employers should also regularly assess how their systems and temporary arrangements are working and make any improvements, including assessing workers’ IT needs and providing extra equipment where necessary, such as headsets or stationery.

How to stay focused when working from home

The HSE says employers should meet specialist display screen equipment needs where possible for those working from home. For some equipment (eg keyboards, mouse, riser) this could mean allowing workers to take this equipment home.

For other larger items (eg ergonomic chairs, height-adjustable desks), companies are advised to encourage workers to try other ways of creating a comfortable working environment (eg supporting cushions).

Are you entitled to extra costs when working from home?

Even before the pandemic forced office workers to get onboard with home working en masse, those “required” to work remotely were entitled to extra costs for heating and electricity.

Totting up these expenditures individually is possibly more bother than it’s worth – but there’s a flat rate of £6 a week you can claim, should you wish.

This can be claimed from your employer, who would pay you the extra £6 a week tax-free. Or, considering many businesses may be struggling right now, you can claim tax relief on £6 a week through HMRC instead.

The £6 a week tax relief claim adds up to about £62 a year for 20 per cent basic rate taxpayers, and about £124 a year for those on the higher 40 per cent tax rate, according to MoneySavingExpert.com.

You can claim by filling in a P87 form.

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