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How hot is too hot? School working regulations in a heatwave: Sector Response

Sun and grass

The Met Office has extended a rare amber extreme heat warning, meaning there could be a danger to life or potential serious illness, resulting from soaring temperatures. Already, we are seeing more patients visit A&E departments this week, with reports of heat stroke and severe dehydration across the country.

With temperatures likely to hit over 35C in the southeast on Monday, making it the hottest day of the year so far, the prospect of sitting in a classroom all day is not only unappealing but potentially dangerous.

It is therefore important for schools to consider how hot is too hot, and to take action to protect students from adverse consequences of the heat.

What are the symptoms of heat stress?

Working in hot temperatures can lead to heat stress, which has several different symptoms. It can affect individuals in different ways and some people are more susceptible to it than others.

Some of the symptoms of heat stress include a lack of concentration, muscle cramps, heat rashes, severe thirst/dehydration, fainting, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

What are the legal requirements from education institutions?

There is no maximum legal temperature for when children should be sent home.  Instead, schools are required to follow the same guidance given to all UK workplaces, which is set out by the Government’s Health and Safety Executive. This states that temperatures must remain within ‘reasonable’ and ‘comfortable’ limits and that employers should provide a steady stream of ‘clean, fresh air’, as well as access to plenty of water.

It is crucial that employers follow their duty of care to all staff, carry out risk assessments when necessary, and act accordingly to prevent staff from falling unwell or being injured

How can you reduce the risk of heat stress?

High temperature can affect students’ ability to concentrate and can cause physical discomfort and illness. If students get too hot they risk dizziness, fainting, dehydration, muscle cramps, or even heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Children, particularly very young ones, cannot control their body temperature as effectively as adults, so are likely to suffer more in extreme heat and may not know how to protect themselves.

As such, schools should err on the side of caution. I would advise teachers to relax uniform rules around long trousers, blazers and ties for the duration of the heatwave, and to encourage them to drink lots of water throughout the day. If temperatures become too high in a particular school or schoolroom, then it would be sensible to allow children to go home.

It is also important to take each child on a case-by-case basis. Children under 4 years of age, as well as those who are overweight, disabled or taking certain medications, may be at increased risk in the heat.

What are the potential consequences should students or staff take unwell?

It must not be forgotten that employers have a legal duty to ensure that their working environments are as safe as possible, and this includes making a reasonable judgement on temperatures. If an employer or educational institution neglects their responsibility, and this results in someone falling unwell or being injured, that person may be able to claim compensation.

Jonathan White, Legal and Compliance Director at National Accident Helpline

Sector Response

Commenting as the UK faces an amber alert heatwave next week, James Bowen, director of policy for school leaders’ union NAHT, said:

“As temperatures continue to rise, school leaders will be thinking carefully about how to keep pupils and staff safe and as comfortable as possible.

“Whilst there is no legal ‘upper limit’ for temperature in schools, they will certainly be doing all they can to mitigate the effects of such high temperatures.

“For most, this will mean making straightforward adjustments such as limiting the time spent in the sun during breaks, ensuring additional water is available, making adjustments to uniform expectations where appropriate, and ventilating classrooms as best they can.

“Given that there is no specific upper limit on school temperatures, widespread closures would seem unlikely at this stage. No school will want to have to close after their experiences during the pandemic, so this would very much be a last resort. Such a decision would only be taken where absolutely necessary for the safety of all concerned and following a rigorous and thorough risk assessment.

“If, as it appears, warmer summers are going to become the norm, then government really does need to give urgent thought to improving the state of school buildings. As we have learnt during the pandemic, too many are simply not fit for purpose with even basic ventilation being a challenge in some cases. Poorly ventilated classrooms are not only inconducive to work but, as we have seen, also the perfect environment for transmission of viruses.

“Whether it is air quality or extreme temperatures, it shouldn’t be too much to ask for school buildings that are conducive to learning all year round.”

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