Global warming means extreme heat events are more likely to increase in frequency, intensity, and duration.

Following a summer of unusually high temperatures and wildfires across the UK, our insurer partner Zurich explores how organisations should prepare to protect people and ensure business continuity. 

Although extreme heat events occur within natural climate variation, climate change will likely increase the frequency, duration, and intensity, with implications for people, cities, and  the economy. A special report issued by the Met Office suggests that we are already experiencing higher maximum temperatures and longer warm spells in recent years. Since 2002 the UK has experienced the top 10 warmest years since 1884. In early August 2020, maximum temperatures reaching 34 °C or more on six consecutive days were recorded across southern England. As a result of climate change, an extreme heat event now is 30 times more likely to occur, and the Met Office heat wave thresholds have recently been updated. They have also introduced a new type of weather warning for extreme heat. In towns and cities, the urban heat island effect – where more heat is retained or generated due to traffic or the built environment – means the temperatures experienced can be exceptionally high.

For many of us living and working in extreme heat conditions may just be uncomfortable, leading to reduced concentration and lower productivity. However, in some cases it can cause muscle cramps, heat rash, severe thirst, nausea, fatigue, or fainting. In extreme cases, it can be fatal.  The heatwaves of 2020 resulted in excess mortality comparable to that observed in England during the 2003 pan-European heatwave and 2006 event, in which 2,234 and 2,323 excess deaths were observed, respectively. The UK government climate change risk assessment rates risks to health & wellbeing from high temperatures as one of the highest category risks.

In the UK there is no maximum safe temperature to work in. Air temperature is only one factor that affects how we experience heat in the workplace.

The Health & Safety Executive also recommends other factors be assessed including:

  • other sources of heat a person is exposed to such as cookers, drying equipment, or even the sun
  • ‘air velocity’ or how well ventilated the environment is
  • humidity
  • the clothing worn, which may be dictated by personal protective equipment the worker is required to wear, uniforms or dress codes
  • the amount of physical labour required in the role
  • the individual’s size, weight, age and general fitness level

As temperatures rise, the impact of extreme heat becomes more significant.  Extreme heat creates unworkable conditions for people working outdoors, leading to reduced productivity. It also raises health and safety concerns because of the conditions created inside existing buildings, especially for elderly and vulnerable people. Extreme temperatures can also deteriorate building materials impacting safety levels and can likely increase energy demand for cooling. This can put additional stress on energy infrastructure, potentially leading to issues such as power outages. Dry, hot conditions also make wildfires more likely. Extreme heat events may also damage transport infrastructure, disrupting transport networks and impacting supply chain and distribution networks.

As extreme heat can become disruptive and even dangerous for organisations, preparing is essential to protect people and to maintain operations in periods of disruption.

What should you do?

  • Understand the changing environment and how extreme temperatures can impact your business
  • Gain more insights about the extreme heat related risk and develop a strategic action plan
  • Build awareness within your organisation around the implications of extreme heat
  • Monitor the ‘thermal comfort’ in your workplace, which can be affected by more than air temperature
  • Retrofit buildings to withstand higher temperatures
  • Assess building materials as per their thermal properties
  • Upgrade equipment to more energy-efficient to reduce energy demand
  • Assess the impact of extreme heat to your organisation carbon footprint
  • Identify how exposed your supply chain is to extreme heat related disruptions and build your business continuity plan
  • Design a climate-resilient supply chain footprint
  • Reduce exposure to heat and agree a threshold temperature for heat, and how long people can work in these conditions without a break especially where it is difficult to make other adjustments
  • Increase the number of rest and water breaks for workers, and provide access to more cold drinking water
  • Increase air circulation with fans, opening windows or air conditioning
  • Provide access to shade or cooler spaces
  • Adjust discretionary dress codes
  • Ensure workers have access to sunscreen and protective clothing if they are working outdoors, such as a hat
  • Monitor the weather for Extreme Heat Warnings & implement your response plan when they occur
  • Monitor the health of employees and anyone else on your site for signs of ill-health caused by extreme heat

As a result of climate change, the UK will likely experience more periods of higher temperatures that last longer.

Extreme heat is a risk to people, can damage infrastructure systems and cause disruption in global supply chains, interrupting production, and raising costs and prices. As we begin to experience more periods of extreme heat, organisations must prepare to protect people and maintain business as usual operations.

Source: Zurich Insurance