The current cold weather snap gripping the UK feels like a world away from the record-high temperature recorded during the summer months of 2022. With extremes of heat and cold expected to increase around the world as climate change affects weather systems, an ever-more-pressing question will arise about how people are expected to work in very hot or very cold conditions.
A recent report from UK consultancy Autonomy suggested that, by the end of this decade, two-thirds of UK workers could be working in extreme heatwaves, defined as those where temperatures exceed 35°C (95°F). In July 2022 the hottest recorded temperature in England was 40.3°C (104.5°F).
Unlike some countries more used to extreme heat, the UK faces some particular challenges when it comes to hot weather: air conditioning is rare, notes Autonomy, and buildings aren’t designed with coolness in mind. “Unlike other countries, the UK currently has no statutory maximum working temperature. Along with a built environment poorly suited to increasing heat, the UK is unprepared for the hot summers that will become ‘the new normal,’” Autonomy notes in its report.
During cold snaps instead, most buildings have central heating, but often lack proper insulation to avoid energy waste and internal temperatures swings. So how extreme does temperature have to be for rules on working conditions to kick in?
Global rules on extreme temperatures at work
In fact, the UK isn’t alone in lacking clear rules on working temperatures. Spain is among the best-regulated, with legislation stating that above 27°C (80.6°F) is too hot for office work. Italy, France, and Germany have rules too, but more vaguely-worded, putting the onus on employers to provide a workplace that is safe, which can be interpreted to include temperature.
In the US, federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations state that offices should be kept between 20°C and 24.4°C (68-76°F). While these are guidelines rather than laws, businesses can be fined for failing to provide appropriate working conditions and in the 2022 heatwave some saw employees walk out due to unworkably high temperatures.
While the kinds of extreme heat events like the wildfires that scourge many parts of the world in hot weather are still very rare in the UK, this report underlines how much temperature changes affect our daily lives—and are likely to do so more in the future.