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Should we be more resilient to extreme heat?

20 May 2024

Gregory Devine

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As top temperatures in the UK have now reached 40 Celsius, some people are calling for new legislation regarding working in extreme heat.

Water bottle with a temp gauge on the side.

‘I like it hot, but I don’t like it this hot’ will be a phrase we will no doubt hear multiple times this summer, with the ridiculous temperatures the UK is now forced to deal with—but at what point does the weather become too much? Business owners were asking themselves that question as they made the decision on whether they and their teams should work at home, or not, during last week’s record-breaking heatwave.

No doubt some people will say it’s only hot weather, but I’m inclined to disagree with this. This isn’t just hot weather; we are actually living through a national emergency. The temperature doesn’t just directly affect us as people— hot weather threatens the infrastructure that helps us get to work. Train tracks can buckle due to the heat, which will affect people’s commute. Last week, crews were on standby to lay sand down in some parts of the country where there were concerns the road could melt away.

On Tuesday 19 July 2022 most of the east coast mainline was closed, which meant there were no trains from York to London. Many people, therefore, couldn’t get to work on Tuesday or attend meetings and events in London. Government guidance is desperately needed. There needs to be a framework, guidelines…something for business owners, and even headteachers, to refer to, so that they can effectively make a decision on whether it’s safe for employees or students to come into work/school. Such legislation on extreme temperatures, at the rate we’re going, will be something used quite often, as the UK will see more 40+ Celsius temperatures, due to climate change.

At what point should employees not come into work? At what point is it not safe to send a child into school? There is no definitive answer for this nor is there, currently, any real guidance to help.

Woman fanning herself while at work.

Do we all need to suck it up and just get on with it? Dominic Raab, the Deputy Prime Minister, would agree with this. He said, ‘We ought to enjoy the sunshine, and actually, we ought to be resilient enough through some of the pressures it will place.’ Seems somewhat irresponsible of him to say that when you consider the national warnings that were given out. Some business owners are suggesting it’s better for employees to come into the workplace, because they’re more likely to be air-conditioned. I would agree with this if most people could actually get to work, but many won’t, due to public transport being cancelled—thanks to buckled train lines and melting roads.

I recently spoke about how the UK simply isn’t built for temperatures this hot, with the humidity and the fact our infrastructure is built to be more resilient against colder weather. We don’t have the means to effectively deal with extreme heat. 40+ Celsius is currently rare, but temperatures of 30+ Celsius are now an annual occurrence. Despite this, our buildings are still designed to be great at keeping warmth in, not keeping cool, which only makes matters worse during a heatwave. This isn’t a complaint, more a fact of life. We can’t get rid of the insulation, as we also experience cold winters.

We need appropriate legislation and guidance to refer to—so that business owners can make an effective decision that’s best for the needs of their company in a heatwave. In my opinion, it should be a case of ‘if you can get to work in a safe manner that isn’t putting anyone at risk’ then you should do so. The point on offices being airconditioned is a good one; it would certainly be more comfortable being at work than at home during periods of extreme heat. That being said, if you can’t get to work because trains are cancelled, for example, then it should also be acceptable to work from home.

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