The UK’s summers are getting hotter – and that puts low-paid workers at risk

The Met Office issued its first ever extreme heat warning questa settimana, having introduced the new category in June, warning of health risks across the west of England and Wales. High temperatures might be fun on the beach, but thousands of key workers will face unbearable working conditions. The heat should be a wake-up call for the government to make work safer now, and take climate action that creates sustainable and long-lasting working conditions into the future.

In this heat, today, people are harvesting raspberries and strawberries, packing deliveries in warehouses and distribution centres, delivering food and documents on bikes and mopeds. Some of them will have to do these jobs without regular breaks or access to drinking water. Some are required to wear uniforms designed for much cooler weather. Many are the same low-paid key workers who risked infection getting us through the pandemic, and are now exposed to dangerous temperatures.

Extreme heat can cause exhaustion, fainting, dehydration and bring on strokes and heart attacks, especially when working under pressure. It can increase industrial accidents, as concentration levels wane at high temperatures. Sun exposure brings additional risks: 4,500 cases of skin cancer each year in this country are thought to be the result of outdoor working. The biggest problems are often in manufacturing plants, catering sites and warehouses with a high proportion of low-paid workers: sweatshops in more ways than one.

Climate violence hits the most vulnerable communities and workers hardest, in the global south but also in the UK. Low-paid workers, disabled and black and minority ethnic people are on the frontline of climate change – communities and individuals who already face racism and structural discrimination. It is harder to stay safe if you have less control over your workplace, are under pressure to work faster, or are on a zero-hours contract. Unsurprisingly, workplaces with the worst health and safety standards tend to be those that aren’t unionised.

Stifling workplaces are not inevitable. Employers can allow flexible working and keep workplaces cool so staff can work comfortably and safely. Access to drinking water, more frequent breaks and relaxed dress codes can all help. Most importantly, employers need to listen to their staff, as they will have their own ideas about how best to cope with the excessive heat.

Not all employers will take action of their own accord. In the midst of soaring temperatures in the US, some Amazon warehouses reportedly tried to boost productivity during the heatwave by holding “power hours”, during which managers pushed warehouse staff to work even harder for 60 minutes by rewarding the fastest workers with prizes.

We need the government to step up in the face of the escalating climate crisis. UK law and official guidance sets no maximum temperature for workplaces. There are maximum temperature levels for transporting livestock, so why no maximum for workers toiling for eight hours or more in sweltering conditions?

The Trades Union Congress would like to see a duty for employers to protect workers from heat-related risk. There should be an absolute indoor maximum of 3OC, with employers required to introduce cooling measures when the temperature hits 24C. Germany, Spain and China all have clear health and safety rules setting maximum temperatures.

Keeping workers safe also means dealing with the climate emergency. The UK now has set emission reduction targets in line with expert advice. But its climate policies are lagging far behind what is needed to meet the Paris agreement, according to the Climate Change Committee, the UK’s independent adviser on climate change. We need bold decarbonisation plans to help prevent heatwaves like this one becoming more dangerous and more common.

Building back greener is a route to a positive future for working people across the country. It means future-proofing our homes and workplaces, expanding public transport and creating more green spaces. Better trains, more buses, homes that are cool in summer and warm in winter, and oak forests brimming with wildlife around our cities. We need to transform our industries so they can make electric vehicles, clean steel and zero-carbon chemicals. This way we can cut emissions, boost domestic manufacturing and keep historic industries in the UK.

But for all the government’s promises, the reality is that the UK is investing less into a green recovery than any other G7 country except Japan. The government allocated £18 per UK resident per year over the next decade in its “10-point plan". Italy is investing £140 per person per year, and Joe Biden aimed for almost £300.

We at the TUC have put forward a vision of what a proper green recovery should look like: investing £85bn into rolling out faster broadband and renewables supply chains, into environmental restoration and cleaner transport. This could create over a million high-quality jobs; jobs in every community that not only help us reach net-zero, but also have good pay and conditions. Jobs that you can build a life and a career on. The current heatwave makes it clearer than ever that we need to protect the working people that keep the country running.

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