Significant numbers of inquiries to the PCS Equality, Health and Safety department arise from temporary situations and/or disruptions to services, including water supplies and fire alarm systems as well as temperature difficulties through under- or over heating.
This page gives some general guidance on steps to be followed in such situations. Further information and support should be sought from branch secretaries, regional reps (where these exist in group structures) and group officers.
Although health and safety legislation lays down a framework of minimum standards that employers are expected to comply with, it affords little protection to employees responding to failures by the employer to reach or maintain those standards.
The only real exception to this is for cases where individuals reasonably consider themselves to be at serious and imminent danger. In such circumstances, employees who take 'appropriate steps' to protect themselves from that serious and imminent danger can complain to an employment tribunal if they suffer detriment from their employer, including dismissal.
But these actions should only be considered in serious emergencies unless legal advice has been sought.
So, there is no legal protection for an employee who leaves the workplace simply because all legally required health and safety standards are not in place.
Employers could decide to stop wages for the time away from the workplace or consider other disciplinary sanctions.
Legal standards and enforcement
But that does not mean that employers can wilfully ignore health and safety requirements.
The enforcing authorities (HSE, local authorities or fire enforcement bodies) can, if necessary, order premises closed or work to cease if they consider the situation unsafe or illegal. They will certainly be prepared on most occasions to offer advice on the actions employers should be taking.
How to tackle problems
The first step for the rep is to establish exactly what has happened, how long the situation is likely to continue and what initial proposals management are making to resolve difficulties for the staff. Establish communications early, and ensure that you are kept up to date as things progress.
Consider any procedural agreements that may exist between the employer and the union: is there an agreement on what to do over excessive temperatures, for example. If so, are the management's proposals in line with such agreements?
Consider whether the proposals made are reasonable in the circumstances: for example, going to a next door building to use their toilet facilities to cover a short term disruption may be reasonable (at least for most staff); going for a 15 minute walk into the town centre to use a public toilet when the situation is going to last for days/weeks will almost certainly not be a reasonable alternative.
If the proposals from management are not reasonable, consider how it is best to address the problem: do you attempt to negotiate an improved solution; do you seek intervention higher in the management chain, perhaps through Branch, regional or group officials; do you contact the enforcing authorities for advice, support or intervention?
Different circumstances will suggest different approaches as most likely to produce the result you seek.
Even when the proposals made are reasonable for most staff, consider the effects on all individual members.
There may be those for whom the solution will not be appropriate - e.g. those with medical or other conditions meaning that they need ready access to toilet facilities or those for whom over- or under-heating could have particular health consequences.
Management may have to make alternative arrangements for such individuals.
Information for specific incidents
Disruption to fire alarm services
Temporary disruption to fire alarm services have significant implications though these are often not appreciated by line managers: having a suitable system to raise the alarm throughout a building is often a requirement of fire certificates and should also be addressed as part of the risk assessment for fire required by the Fire Precautions (workplace) Regulations. In considering alternative practices, bear in mind:
- Many fire alarm systems not only afford a means of raising the alarm if a fire is discovered but will also incorporate automatic fire detection systems to cover areas of the workplace where a fire could develop without otherwise being discovered (store rooms, plant rooms etc.) So any alternative systems for raising an alarm (such as regular patrolling) MUST ensure that such areas are visited on a very regular basis.
- Alarm systems will usually have a secondary supply system for power, in case the main supply system is disrupted by the fire. Relying on, for example, telephones to spread word of a fire situation would not normally afford adequate coverage for a back-up system if the fire destroyed telephone systems.
- All staff and visitors within a building must know what the fire alarm system is and what to do if they discover a fire or if they hear the alarm. Such information will have to be communicated in relation to any replacement system.
- Replacement systems must adequately cover all periods of occupation. What might be OK if all staff are in the workplace may not work in early morning, late evening or shift work situations with reduced staffing levels and greater reliance on automatic fire detection.
- Different arrangements may be in place to make those with hearing impairments aware of a fire being discovered. Ensure that alternative systems meet all user requirements.
If in doubt about a proposed replacement system, consider asking management to arrange a fire drill using the alternative, to see if it works effectively. Alternatively, ask them to contact the fire enforcing authority to ask for their input on alternative systems - or contact them yourself.
Disruption to water supplies
The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations require: 'suitable and sufficient sanitary conveniences … at readily accessible places.' (Regulation 20); 'suitable and sufficient washing facilities …… at readily accessible places.' (Regulation 21); and 'An adequate supply of wholesome drinking water …. Readily accessible at suitable places;' (Regulation 22).
In terms of toilet and hand washing facilities, the approved code of practice states that 'The facilities do not have to be within the workplace but they should if possible be within the building. …. The use of public facilities is only acceptable as a last resort, where no other arrangement is possible.'
The code also requires washing stations to have 'running hot and cold or warm water'.
In considering proposals on how to respond to temporary disruptions to water supplies, you should consider the following:
- It is important to understand the impact of the disruption to services - what has caused it; how long is it likely to last; what will the actual effects on services be: for example some buildings have large storage tanks for water supply, which can keep toilet and washing facilities running for short periods without a mains supply.
- Drinking water should be readily available within the workplace, and employers should consider the purchase of bottled water where disruption to mains supply lasts anything beyond a very short period.
- Any replacement for toilet facilities must be planned - employers should agree arrangements with the owner of the alternative facilities, not expect staff to 'sneak into' a local pub, for example. Such an approach could also cause difficulties for those who cannot enter licensed premises for religious or cultural reasons.
- If facilities are going to be unavailable for a significant period of time, provision of temporary portable facilities should be considered.
- Some individuals will have medical or other reasons that require more ready access to toilet facilities than the majority of staff. Alternative arrangements may be needed to meet their needs.
- If the services of an adjacent building are to be used, it is necessary to ensure that the additional usage will still enable 'everyone at work to use them without undue delay' - as specified in the Approved Code of Practice.
Excessive or inadequate temperatures
The Workplace (Health, Safety & Welfare) Regulations 1992 say that employers must maintain a 'reasonable' temperature at all times.
Temperatures below 16° C for sedentary work and below 13° for work involving physical effort are regarded not to be reasonable.
No specific figure is given for when temperature becomes excessive, but this does not mean that employers have no obligation to react to high workplace temperatures.
Thermal comfort is dependent on more than just temperature: air movement and humidity are also important factors.
In draughty conditions, people feel colder than they would at the same temperature with no significant draught. Similarly, people can tolerate higher temperatures in a room with good air movement than in a still and humid atmosphere.
When temperatures are uncomfortably low or high, managers should be looking to alleviate the worst effects by, for example, allowing breaks for people to get hot or cold drinks, or to permit them to warm up or cool down; by providing additional heating, cooling or air movement (fans, etc.); by allowing anyone with particular health concerns to leave the workplace, either to go home or to move to another workplace which does have a reasonable temperature; by relaxing dress code requirements where appropriate.
Particularly where excess temperature is the problem, it may also be possible to relax hours of attendance/flexible working hours rules, where opening hours for public access are not a critical issue, to allow people to start work earlier in the day, take longer lunch breaks and/or finish earlier.
Home working might be a possibility in certain cases - though home temperatures may be no more acceptable than those in the workplace! Bear in mind, however, that individuals may be constrained in their ability to take advantage of such arrangements due to caring and other commitments.
Tackling underlying problems
Once the emergency situation is resolved, it is vital that any underlying systems failures are also addressed.
For example, a heating system that is regularly breaking down should be assessed to find out what is necessary to improve reliability; or if regular problems with overheating are experienced, a clear procedural agreement may resolve future occurrences more easily.