Recent weather forecasts are predicting a cold winter this year with rumours of potentially Arctic conditions. If the worst does happen and temperatures plummet to well below freezing, do employees have the right to go home?
Whilst we can’t say whether the predicted Arctic conditions will materialise, it is well worth employers being aware of what the law says on minimum working temperatures and whether employees have the legal right to go home.
Minimum legal temperatures
The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, which cover workplace temperatures, have, since their inception, caused confusion for employers. That’s because they simply state that the temperature in a workplace should be “reasonable”. However, unlike some other pieces of legislation which also use the word ‘reasonable’, this description has been selected deliberately.
The reason behind this choice of wording is that it gives employers some short-term leeway in the event of any unexpected problems. When it comes to cold weather conditions, this could be something such as your central heating system/boiler breaking down.
The Regulations are supported by an Approved Code of Practice (ACoP) which is slightly more specific. You are not legally required to comply with the ACoP, but it is the yardstick the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) will use to assess an employer. A PDF of the Approved Code of Practice can be downloaded for free here.
The ACoP states that the temperature for static indoor environments, such as offices and shops, should be at least 16ºC and a minimum of 13ºC where the work is physical, e.g. in a warehouse or factory environment. But this is just a guideline, not a legal requirement.
Neither the Regulations nor the ACoP allow staff to stop working if it’s cold; the right to stop work only arises where the employee is exposed to a serious, imminent and unavoidable danger. To trigger an employee’s right to stop work the event would need to be severe enough to cause a serious accident or death. Even if the circumstances met the requirement to cease work, employees have no right to go home; their legal right is to stop work and evacuate to safety.
Dealing with complaints
But what if an employee threatens to go home? In the first instance, spell out the rules and, if they don’t believe you, show them the ACoP – it’s not a document that’s intended for your eyes only. Where an employee actually carries out their threat, you will be fully entitled to discipline them for leaving work without your permission.
If you take the decision to send staff home, e.g. a heating problem can’t be fixed for the foreseeable future, you’ll still need to pay them as normal. So in this situation you may want to consider a temporary homeworking arrangement.
Remember employees have no legal right to go home in severely cold weather and there is no minimum legal workplace temperature it must simply be reasonable and HSE guidelines suggest 16ºC for static indoor environments, e.g. offices, and 13ºC where physical work is involved.