This year’s COP, the 28th since its inception, came to a close this Wednesday past having overrun by its now obligatory extra day, to allow for last-minute negotiations.  Its headline outcome, that  for the first time, countries agreed on the need to "transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems", may come as a surprise to many, who might be asking themselves, surely that is something that must have been agreed on before?  Not so. For all the posturing and positioning, negotiations over the journey to net zero continue to move glacially even as the ice melts around us. Before the final deal was agreed at COP28, there were warnings that we were heading towards 2.7C of warming by 2100. Be in no doubt that is an existential threat to life on earth.

There remains far too little urgency to tackle climate change. Yet as political leaders delay vital action, the consequences are already unfolding across the world with impacts for working people everywhere.

The summer of 2023 was the hottest on record. From June to August, global temperatures soared past previous records to reach an average of 16.8oC.  The rising temperatures bring changing weather patterns and increased extremes. In Scotland, our summers and winters will get warmer, but they will also see increased chances of extreme hot and cold snaps, as well as severe bursts of rain. Flooding will increase, coastal erosion from sea level rise will worsen, and storms will become more frequent.

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In October, Storm Babet brought severe disruption to people particularly in the North East of Scotland. After one of the warmest autumns on record, the start of December saw snow and plummeting temperatures across the UK including the coldest temperature recorded in the UK this year of -10C in Drumnadrochit. In fact, for nearly half of October and November, the Met Office had some form of weather warning in place in the UK.

For workers, severe weather brings unique challenges depending on the job they do, their working environment, and how they commute to work. 

For groups of workers like firefighters, who deal directly on the frontline of climate change, the impacts can be obvious as they are faced with increasing wildfires and flooding. In this context, firefighters' efforts to resist further government cuts, having already seen the loss of 1,200 firefighters in Scotland over the last 10 years, should be of enormous concern to us all. 

Across all workplaces (including at home if people are working from there) employers have a duty of care to their employees.  There is health and safety guidance which says a reasonable temperature should be at least 16C, or 13C if it involves a lot of physical effort, but there is no guidance on maximum temperatures. However, this is merely guidance, there is no legal minimum or maximum working temperature that employers must abide by.  

The Herald: Applause atvthe end of COP28, which will ring hollow for many workersApplause atvthe end of COP28, which will ring hollow for many workers (Image: PA)

Things become even more complicated when we consider the position of those who commute to work, including during extreme weather events. The employers of workers who drive as part of their work do have additional health and safety responsibilities which is important given one in three road deaths involves someone driving for work.  With that exception, the employer’s health and safety responsibilities are considered to stop at the factory gate.  How you get to work is generally seen as a matter, and a risk, for the individual worker.

This assumption is something that we have recently been testing through arguing that late-night hospitality employers should consider and provide safe transport home for workers who are at risk of violence particularly as they travel back late.

However, as extreme weather conditions increase, we have seen significant confusion around the position of workers who do not feel safe travelling to work because of the increased risk of accident due to bad weather.  Can the employer require them to attend work?  What is their position if they refuse to do so through genuine concern for their safety?

ACAS guidance encourages employers to be as flexible as they can if disruption makes getting to work difficult or impossible and no employer should encourage staff to travel when it’s not safe. However, there is no requirement for employers to pay workers when they are unable to safely travel to work if alternative arrangements cannot be made. An employer can tell employees that they must take holiday if they cannot safely get to work, so long as they give twice as much notice as the amount of leave. If a worker does not have any annual leave, alternative suggestions are to offer unpaid time off or borrow entitlement from the following year. Ultimately, this puts workers in a situation where they may need to choose between staying safe but not being paid or using up their annual leave, or travelling to work when it is not safe to do so.

During Storm Babet in October, which came with a red weather warning in the North East, Angus Council asked employers to “please” not require employees to come into work. This was the extent of its power and there is no greater power of compulsion in other tiers of government either. During the "Beast from the East" extreme weather event in February 2018, we received hundreds upon hundreds of inquiries from people who were being instructed to come to work at obvious personal risk. Others were being instructed not to come to work, but told they would not be paid, whereas others were left to make their own decision with very little information on the consequences of the decisions they made.

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That resulted in a joint STUC/Scottish Government statement, the Severe Weather Fair Work Charter, which, along with offering guidance for bosses and workers, also made clear that every employer should have a severe weather policy in place outlining rights and responsibilities and providing much-needed clarity for workers on where they stand. Severe weather is going to get increasingly frequent and severe, but existing employment protection are insufficient. We need more of these workplace policies as right now it is workers who will be expected to weather the storm. As world leaders posture at summits, the STUC is surveying workers to gain a better picture of what is happening on the ground and supporting workers to organise for Severe Weather Policies in their workplace. 

It cannot be right that employers risk the lives of their workers during extreme weather. But it is only through workers coming together and making demands of their employer, that we can right this wrong and ensure that all workers are safe - at work and on their way to work.  

Roz Foyer is General Secretary of the STUC