TUC says “Cool it!” as workers suffer in summer heat
A month or so ago, when there was a hot spell and the thermometer went over 30c the TUC called for employers to take action to help workers cope with it by supplying fans, relaxing dress codes and allowing more flexible working so they could avoid rush hour. We also of course restated our demand for a legal maximum temperature.
That is all fine for those who work indoors, but what about all those who work outside in hot weather. A maximum outdoor temperature is not really practical. But that does not mean that we should just ignore the problem of outdoors workers. They after all have the same issue when the temperature soars. They suffer fatigue, discomfort and productivity falls while accidents rise. Yet they are also at risk of skin cancer, heatstroke, sunburn and premature aging of the skin.
They are also amongst the most vulnerable of workers with huge numbers of low paid migrants working in the fields up and down the country in the heat of day, construction workers, who have to do hard physical labour while wearing a hard hat and hi-vis vest, or groups like parking attendants who spend the day tramping the streets in a uniform with no flexibility allowed regardless of how hot it gets. As TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said “We treat our farmyard animals better than some of our agricultural workers. At least animals get shelter and a supply of water in the heat.”
When employers are asked to protect workers from the heat the usual response is that they cannot control the weather and it is up to the individual worker to decide what to wear. That is rubbish. The risk of skin cancer or heat exhaustion is just as important as any other risk and should be dealt with through risk assessment and risk management.
Also, simply telling workers they must cover up or wear sunscreen is not going to be effective in itself unless there is also a campaign to explain the dangers to the workforce. It is important that employers realise that reducing exposure is not about putting responsibility onto the worker, but looking at the working practices – and that is their job.
The TUC has now published a detailed guide to dealing with the problem of heat in the workplace, whether that is indoor or outside. It specifically addresses the kind of issues that workers face and lists a number of practical suggestions about what employers can do. Not by trying to control the weather, but controlling the working environment or how we work.
But is anything going to change without some find of enforcement action? Given the nature of some of the industries involved and the huge number of vulnerable workers, who are already underpaid and exploited, we need to ensure that employers act. That means that we need the HSE and Local Authorities to take the problem of heat and the sun seriously. Back in 2009 the HSE admitted that it had never taken any prosecutions on heat in the past 14 years. In the 7 years since then I have never heard of a case either, yet millions of workers are still being exposed to a hazard that is responsible for 100,000 cases of cancer a year and for thousands of people becoming ill through heatstroke or exhaustion.