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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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Scorching summer was France’s second hottest on record

Three heatwaves since June produced France's second-hottest summer since records began in 1900, the Météo France weather service said on Tuesday, warning that scorching temperatures will be increasingly common as the climate crisis intensifies.

Scorching summer was France's second hottest on record

With 33 days of extreme heat overall, average temperatures for June, July and August were 2.3C above normal for the period of 1991-2020.

It was surpassed only by the 2003 heatwave that caught much of France unprepared for prolonged scorching conditions, leading to nearly 15,000 heat-related deaths, mainly among the elderly.

Data is not yet available for heat-related deaths this summer, but it is likely to be significantly lower than 15,000 thanks to preventative measures taken by local and national authorities. 

Most experts attribute the rising temperatures to the climate crisis, with Météo France noting that over the past eight summers in France, six have been among the 10-hottest ever.

By 2050, “we expect that around half of summer seasons will be at comparable temperatures, if not higher,” even if greenhouse gas emissions are contained, the agency’s research director Samuel Morin said at a press conference.

The heat helped drive a series of wildfires across France this summer, in particular a huge blaze in the southwest that burned for more than a month and blackened 20,000 hectares. 

Unusually, wildfires also broke out even in the normally cooler north of the country, and in total an area five times the size of Paris burned over the summer. 

Adding to the misery was a record drought that required widespread limits on water use, with July the driest month since 1961 – many areas still have water restrictions in place.

MAP: Where in France are there water restrictions and what do they mean?

Forecasters have also warned that autumn storms around the Mediterranean – a regular event as air temperatures cool – will be unusually intense this year because of the very high summer temperatures. A storm that hit the island of Corsica in mid August claimed six lives. 

“The summer we’ve just been through is a powerful call to order,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said on Monday, laying out her priorities for an “ecological planning” programme to guide France’s efforts against climate change.