High temperatures can be a big problem in the workplace. While this was always an issue, the climate crisis is now making it worse, with recent record-breaking heatwaves in many places in Europe, Africa the US, and Asia. Now, unions across the world are making the case for improved working regulations to better regulate working conditions amid the growing heat.
When the temperature rises too much then it can become a health and safety problem. If people are too hot, they can get dizzy, faint, or have heat cramps. In hot conditions, the body’s blood temperature rises, increasing the risk of a heat stroke or other major health problems. In fact, blood temperature over 41C degrees can prove fatal and cause irreparable organ damage.
Heat can also worsen other medical conditions such as high blood pressure or heart disease because of an increased load on the hearth. Workers that face a higher risk of heat stress include those who are overweight, are 65 years of age or older, or have high blood pressure. High temperatures are also associated with a reduced sperm count.
To put it simply, high temperatures are bad for your health in a number of ways — especially if you’re working.
It’s usually accepted that people work best at a temperature between 16 and 24 degrees Celsius, although this depends on the type of work being done. In the UK, the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers recommends 20C degrees for offices, 18C degrees for hospital wards and shops, and 16C degrees for light work in factories.
However, these limits are now being challenged by the longer and more severe heatwaves – one of the consequences of the climate crisis. In Europe, three people died last week while on a shift in Spain because of the heat, leading to calls by trade unions for the European Union to impose temperature limits for outdoor workers.
“The weather doesn’t respect national borders which is why we need Europe-wide legislation on maximum working temperatures,” Claes-Mikael Stahl, deputy secretary general of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), said in a statement. “Politicians can’t continue to ignore the danger to our most vulnerable workers.”
Legislations and challenges
In Europe, a handful of countries have legislation limiting working hours when there’s excessive heat. However, the threshold varies, and many countries don’t have nationwide heat limits. A recent survey by polling agency Eurofound said 23% of all workers across the EU were exposed to high temperatures a quarter of the time at their workplace.
In France, the working code doesn’t set a maximum workplace temperature but it requires employers to make sure workers can do their job under safe conditions. For those working in the construction sector, employers must provide them with at least three liters of water a day, which comes as a relief during days of high temperatures, but doesn’t solve all the problems associated with heat.
Italy’s rules also don’t establish a maximum temperature allowed in the workplace but, like France, requires employers to ensure workers can do their job safely. According to a court ruling in 2015, workers can stop their activity if their employer doesn’t guarantee safe working conditions or makes them work under risky temperatures.
In Germany, the government defines the maximum temperature in the workplace as 26 degrees Celsius but doesn’t mandate it by law. If temperatures exceed that level, employers must ensure workers can continue with their activity safely. When a workplace temperature exceeds 30 degrees Celsius, it’s considered “unsuitable” for work.
More than the other countries, Spain clearly regulates the maximum workplace temperatures. The Institute for Hygiene and Safety states that a temperature between 17 and 27 degrees Celsius is needed for work in an office, and that work that requires physical effort has to be done at a temperature between 14 and 25 degrees Celsius.
There’s no requirement for employers in the US to maintain a certain working temperature, based on federal legislation. However, the Occupational Safety and Health Act says employers have to provide workers with a place of employment that’s free from recognizable hazards that can cause “death or serious harm to employees.”
“This hot weather is great for being on a sun lounger, but if you’re trying to work through it’s no joke. Bosses need to do everything possible to keep workplaces cool and, more importantly, safe,” Lynsey Mann from the GMB union in the UK said in a statement. The UK also doesn’t have a maximum temperature for the workplace.
A growing heatwave
Extreme heat has pressed down on a large part of the US last weekend, with over 100 million Americans sweltering under heat warnings. The National Weather Service said the Northeast was the most affected area on what it called a “Sultry Sunday.” High humidity pushed heat indexes (the temperature that air feels like) above 100F degrees.
A heatwave was also felt across Europe last week, killing over 1,000 people in Portugal alone and leading Seville, Spain, to start naming the phenomenon like it would a hurricane. The enduring heat has also caused wildfires to spread across France, with 27,000 acres affected in the Gironde department, forcing over 30,000 people to evacuate.
The extreme heat, expected to continue in the US while having already peaked in Europe, is yet another warning of the consequences of the climate crisis. The global temperature has grown 1.1 degrees Celsius since pre-industrial times and is on a path to keep rising unless we take serious action to bring down our greenhouse gas emissions.
Considering all this, and how with ongoing climate trends, things will get worse before they get better, a temperature cap for workers increasingly seems like a problem policymakers may want to consider.