Three days into last week’s heatwave, the University of Birmingham finally issued guidance to staff, after campus trade unions, led by Birmingham UCU raised concerns.
At the start of the week, with the temperature already rising and the news broadcasters indicating that a new temperature record could be set, Birmingham UCU had expected the University to take pro-active steps to support its staff. When staff had received no information by Tuesday (23 July), the branch took to Twitter to ask the University’s HR department whether it was planning to issue advice to staff.
Sadly, Birmingham UCU received no response to this message, either online or via more traditional channels. Instead, it was only after the branch raised the same question the following day (24 July), this time copying in the University’s main social media account, that HR finally responded after midday, stating:
Too little, too late?
It was not until Thursday, on the fourth day of the heatwave, that managers began sharing advice with their staff their staff. From speaking with members, Birmingham UCU understands this communication took the form of managers forwarding on five bullet-points of basic advice from HR:
- Buildings should be kept cool. Closing blinds and opening windows will help
- People should stay indoors as much as possible between the peak sun hours of 11.00 to 15.00
- People should drink water regularly, even when not thirsty and avoid tea, coffee or alcohol
- Physically exacting work or exercise should be avoided where possible between 11.00 and 15.00. This may mean that those who work outside e.g. Grounds Staff should be deployed on other duties.
- Smoking and certain ‘hot works’ should not be allowed in areas where there may be a higher risk of fire
While the hot weather advice (which was also published on the staff intranet) did also include links to further advice from the NHS and the Health and Safety Executive, the University did not make it clear to staff who is responsible for staff wellbeing and what staff should contact if they need extra support. For example, in some parts of campus, staff work in offices where windows are sealed shut and with no air conditioning available. What should staff do if they feel their workplaces are unsuitable or their managers are failing to adapt working practices to take account of the heat?
It was also striking how the University’s bullet-point advice to staff made no direct reference to flexible working and relaxing dress codes, despite these being detailed in the HSE advice, which the University linked out to.
Improving workplace wellbeing
A spokesperson for Birmingham UCU said: “While it is good to see the University eventually hot weather advice to staff, it should have done so at the start of the heatwave, not three days into the week.
It is also concerning that the University issued advice only after campus trade unions, led by Birmingham UCU publicly raised concerns over staff welfare, and even then the advice was limited in nature. With climate change making extreme weather a more frequent occurrence, we urge the University to work with us and the other campus trade unions to ensure staff have the support they need to work safely during periods of hot weather.”