According to a report published by the University of Warwick, the idea that there are more heatwaves today than there used to be isn’t something that is anecdotal but a provable scientific fact. Their research, conducted in cooperation with the London School of Economics, concluded that UK heatwaves are three to four times more likely to occur today than when accurate weather measurements began in the 1870s. This means that the role of climate change on the UK’s weather system is already having a discernible impact. As British weather becomes more akin to the sort of climate you might have once associated with southern Europe, what will it mean for the average business in the country?
Before looking any further into what the increased prevalence of heatwaves means for commercial enterprises in the UK, it is worth underlining that a heatwave isn’t simply a hot spell or even a couple of hotter than average days. The Met Office has a very clear set of criteria that determine what a heatwave is. According to them, this varies where in the country a business happens to be. In fact, it is worked out on a county by county basis so that regional variations in weather – say in Lancashire or Kent, Renfrewshire or Cornwall – can be taken into account.
Under their system, a heatwave is officially designated as such when the daily maximum temperatures in an area exceed the local threshold for three or more days. Often, this will be accompanied by a high level of humidity – the sort of conditions that make working harder because of the mugginess workers tend to feel. However, according to the Met Office, at least, it is the temperature, not the relative humidity level that counts when a heatwave is declared.
Importantly, heatwaves affect the UK much less than in other parts of the world. North American heatwaves tend to be intense and associated with very high humidity levels, for example. Southern Asia and Europe both suffer from them more frequently. However, such parts of the world, certainly in the more developed areas, tend to be better geared up for hot spells than the UK. In short, the UK does not enjoy the widespread use of commercial air conditioning and refrigeration systems in many of its places of work. Indeed, even where commercial HVAC systems are in place, they tend not to be used that frequently and, as a consequence, are often not maintained as they should be.
According to TJ Refrigeration, commercial chiller equipment, air conditioning installers, and repairers, many of the calls for help they receive come when a heatwave is already occurring. In other words, it is only then that British office managers and business owners are willing to spend any money looking after their cooling equipment. Typically, chiller units in restaurants and retail outlets are turned up when it gets hot, so they can overheat and develop other faults, especially if there is insufficient ventilation.
The same goes for many of the country’s air-conditioning installations. All too often, they are neglected, and only when they’re turned on for the first time in months do employees complain of inefficiencies or bad odours. These problems ought to be sorted out well before major faults develop, of course. The issue that many commercial premises face is that they want an emergency call-out for a repair just when everyone else is demanding the same thing. Consequently, it makes more sense to take out an annual service contract to keep the system in good working order all the time. Given how many heatwaves we can expect in the coming years in the country, doing so would seem to many to be a wise investment in productivity rather than a needless operational overhead.
At the moment, there is no law in the UK that says when workers can leave commercial premises because the temperature has risen too high to work. However, few would argue that many employees will simply vote with their feet if they’re being asked to work in unreasonably hot conditions. Indeed, things may soon change, placing more of an onus on employers to keep their workforce cool. After all, the Health and Safety Executive has already called on the government to introduce better guidelines regarding minimum and maximum working temperatures. As such, it may soon be essential for businesses to take their investment in chilling equipment and air conditioning more seriously if they wish to remain commercially competitive.