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Can your boss force you to work during a heatwave in France?

Heatwaves are becoming more and more common in France, so we take a look at the employment laws surrounding extreme heat.

Can your boss force you to work during a heatwave in France?
Photo: AFP

As the high temperatures roll in, the lucky ones will be either heading to the beach or sitting in the shade with a good book and a nicely chilled soft drink while the less fortunate souls will be at work as usual.

But is it ever legally too hot to work in France?

What are my rights at work?

Well the bad news is that the code du travail (Labour Code) which governs every aspect of working life in France doesn’t specifically mention heat, so it’s no good just waving a thermometer at your boss and walking out. However, article L4121 of the code does require that employers put in place “the necessary measures to ensure the safety and protect the health” of their workers, and this could relate to heat. 

“The heatwave is not, in itself, a reason for the country to stop working,” Eric Rocheblave, a lawyer specialising in employment law, told Le Parisien.

However several studies have shown that doing physical work at above 33C can prove dangerous to health if no precautions are taken.

So it depends on my job?

Right. If, to take a random example, your job involves sitting in an air conditioned office writing articles about the heatwave, then there is no justification to down tools and head to the park with a bottle of rosé.

But even for office workers employers are expected to take steps to ensure employees are comfortable, for example by supplying fans and making sure there is a supply of drinking water. If no action is taken – despite warnings in advance from weather forecasters – and employees are suffering from the heat then employers are at fault.

For people doing physical work or work in the open air, employers will be expected to take extra measures to ensure their health is not affected by the heat, and this could include offering longer breaks, providing a cool space for people to take breaks in or changing working hours so that people are not outside during the hottest part of the day.

So if my boss isn’t doing any of that I can walk out?

Not straight away, first you must talk to your boss about the issue.

You need to be able to demonstrate three things; that you are suffering from the heat, that the heat was an expected event and that your boss has done nothing to improve the conditions for employees.

Only then can you move on to more direct action. So for example if you are doing physical work outside, it’s 40C and boss tells you to keep working right through the hottest part of the day, despite you telling him or her that you are suffering, you may be justified in refusing to work. 

Mr Rocheblave warned: “Not all employees can exercise their right of withdrawal just because it has been announced that there is a heatwave: they must be confronted with a potentially dangerous situation, and must demonstrate that their health is in danger.”

Will the government help?

If your local area is on a heat warning, especially a red level, then local or national government may issue instructions relating to work – for example in ‘red’ level areas schools sometimes close, or it becomes voluntary for students to attend school.

However, these rules usually have exceptions in them, so you would still need to talk to your boss in advance and come to an agreement on your work. 

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France gets help from EU neighbours as wildfires rage

Firefighting teams and equipment from six EU nations started to arrive in France on Thursday to help battle a spate of wildfires, including a fierce blaze in the parched southwest that has forced thousands to evacuate.

France gets help from EU neighbours as wildfires rage

Most of the country is sweltering under a summer heatwave compounded by a record drought – conditions most experts say will occur more often as a result of rapid climate change.

“We must continue, more than ever, our fight against climate disruption and … adapt to this climate disruption,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said after arriving at a fire command post in the village of Hostens, south of Bordeaux.

The European Commission said four firefighting planes would be sent to France from Greece and Sweden, as well as teams from Austria, Germany, Poland and Romania.

“Our partners are coming to France’s aid against the fires. Thank you to them. European solidarity is at work!” President Emmanuel Macron tweeted.

“Across the country over 10,000 firefighters and security forces are mobilised against the flames… These soldiers of fire are our heroes,” he said.

In total, 361 foreign firefighters were  dispatched to assist their 1,100 French colleagues deployed in the worst-hit part of the French southwest.

A first contingent of 65 German firefighters, followed by their 24 vehicles, arrived Thursday afternoon and were to go into action at dawn Friday, officials said.

Among eight major fires currently raging, the biggest is the Landiras fire in the southwest Gironde department, whose forests and beaches draw huge tourist crowds each summer.

It had already burned 14,000 hectares (35,000 acres) in July – the driest month seen in France since 1961 – before being contained, but it continued to smoulder in the region’s tinder-dry pine forests and peat-rich soil.

Since flaring up again Tuesday, which officials suspect may have been caused by arson, it has burned 7,400 hectares, destroyed or damaged 17 homes, and forced 10,000 people to quit their homes, said Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Mendousse of the Gironde fire and rescue service.

Borne said nine firefighting planes are already dumping water on the blaze, with two more to be in service by the weekend.

“We battled all night to stop the fire from spreading, notably to defend the village of Belin-Beliet,” Mendousse told journalists in Hostens.

On several houses nearby, people hung out white sheets saying: “Thank you for saving our homes” and other messages of support for the weary fire battalions.

“You’d think we’re in California, it’s gigantic… And they’re used to forest fires here but we’re being overwhelmed on all sides — nobody could have expected this,” Remy Lahlay, a firefighter deployed near Hostens in the Landes de Gascogne natural park, told AFP.

With temperatures in the region hitting nearly 40C on Thursday and forecast to stay high until at least Sunday, “there is a very serious risk of new outbreaks” for the Landiras fire, the prefecture of the Gironde department said.

Acrid smoke has spread across much of the southwestern Atlantic coast and its beaches that draw huge crowds of tourists each summer, with the regional ARS health agency “strongly” urging people to wear protective face masks.

The smoke also forced the closing of the A63 motorway, a major artery toward Spain, between Bordeaux and Bayonne.

The government has urged employers to allow leaves of absence for volunteer firefighters to help fight the fires.

Meanwhile, in Portugal, more than 1,500 firefighters were also battling a fire that has raged for days in the mountainous Serra da Estrela natural park in the centre of the country.

It has already burned 10,000 hectares, according to the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS).