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Hitzefrei: Is it ever legally too hot to go to work or school in Germany?

As temperatures climb higher across some parts of Germany, we looked at whether it can ever be too hot to work or go to school. Here's what you need to know.

Two people sit in a pool in Wiesbaden, Hesse in June 2021.
Two people sit in a pool in Wiesbaden, Hesse in June 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sebastian Gollnow

This article was first published in 2019 and we updated it to help us navigate the current summer. 

With temperatures up to 36C expected in parts of Germany on Monday, it’s certainly super hot out there.

And due to the fact that many public places don’t have air conditioning, it could become unbearable.

If this happens, German schools and workplaces can declare hitzefrei (literally, heat free), which means pupils or employees can take the rest of the day off due to excessive heat.

But there are rules to follow for this to happen, and it usually comes down to state regulations for schools and the employer’s decision for workplaces.

Here’s what you need to know. 

READ ALSO: Living in Germany – shorter work weeks, €9 trips and hitzefrei

What applies to employees?

Firstly, hitzefrei is no new concept. A version of it dates back to 1892 when a ministerial decree was made in Prussia, Germany daily FAZ recently reported.

Nowadays, the employer is in principle free to decide when it is too hot as there is no legal framework for employers to follow when they feel they need to switch off their computer and go swim in a lake.

However, labour law provides for certain recommendations that employers should adhere to in the event of high temperatures. Workplace regulations stipulate that room temperatures should not exceed 26C in order to protect health.

READ ALSO: Ditching AC for ‘hitzefrei’: Taking on the German summer as a Californian

Photo: DPA

If the room temperature exceeds 30C, the employer is obliged to take measures to protect employees. This applies not only to offices, but also to shops, warehouses, workshops or wherever the employee’s place of work is.

Furthermore, technical regulations for workplaces stipulate: “If the air temperature in the room exceeds +35C, the room is not suitable as a work area without technical measures (eg industrial air showers, water sprays), organizational measures (eg time allowed for people to cool down) or personal protective equipment (eg heat-protective clothing), as is the case when working in hot environments.”

In other words: bosses must design their workplaces in such a way that health hazards are avoided. Air conditioning systems, fans and blinds can make rooms more climate-friendly.

Alternatively, the employer can provide a cooler place to work. People who work outdoors should stay in the shade and drink enough water.

During the sweltering weather in June 2019, some German outdoor workers were advised to start much earlier in the day. For example in North-Rhine Westphalia, road workers who start at 6.45am could begin at 4.45am. It means they finished earlier and avoided the worst of the sun. 

Workplaces such as canteens and first aid rooms in workplaces must have temperatures that are beneficial to health (and not too hot).

If employees have concerns they should talk to their bosses to see what can be done to bring the temperature of the room down.

What about schools?

There has been no nationwide regulation for schools on when pupils should be sent home due to the heat since 1999, FAZ reports. Instead, each federal state decides for itself. In Baden-Württemberg, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate, Berlin and Hesse, the heads of each individual school have to make the decision. 

Some schools in North Rhine-Westphalia chose to shorten the days for pupils due to the extreme heat in 2019.

As school buildings differ in construction and location, temperatures can vary. Hitzefrei is valid if lessons are impaired by high temperatures in the classrooms. Usually, if a room temperature reaches 25C to 27C or higher, schools take action.

If temperatures are more than 25C outside in the shade by 10am, the school management can also think about sending kids home. Sometimes instead of a day off, teachers choose to relocate lessons to cooler places or take the students on short excursions.

Room temperatures of less than 25C are usually not considered to be excessive. Hitzefrei can be problematic for families with younger children because it requires agreement with the parents, who may have to take time off work to pick up their offspring.

READ ALSO: What working parents in Germany need to know if their child is sick

It’s a good day to go a lake, like this one in Müggelsee, eastern Berlin. Photo: DPA

Pupils at secondary school on the other hand, usually do not get a full hitzefrei day unless, for example, there is a risk of circulatory problems in their classrooms.

Teachers are advised that class tests (for all levels) should be avoided on days when the heat is too much.

So if you overhear this: Ich muss heute Nachmittag nicht in die Schule. Wir haben hitzefrei (I don’t have to go to school this afternoon. We have heat free time) then perhaps there’s a chance your boss might let you finish up early too – but don’t count on it. 

Vocabulary 

Heatwave – (die) Hitzewelle

Air conditioning – (die) Klimaanlage

Unbearable – unerträglich

To get a heat free day – hitzefrei bekommen 

Labour law – (das) Arbeitsrecht

We’re aiming to help our readers improve their German by translating vocabulary from some of our news stories. Did you find this article useful? Let us know.

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WEATHER

Everything you need to know about staying cool in a German heatwave

A new heatwave has hit Germany, with temperatures set to break the 40C barrier in parts of the country. Here's some tips on how to make the best of it.

Everything you need to know about staying cool in a German heatwave

As the global temperature continues to rise, extreme weather events are predicted to become more likely and this includes heatwaves, which will become more frequent and more intense.

Soaring temperatures are a challenge even for the locals, but can be particularly difficult for people who have moved to Germany from cooler countries.

So we’ve gathered together advice on how to keep yourself and your pet cool, how to regulate the temperature in your home (even if it doesn’t have air con), places to go to keep cool and those to avoid and of course how to complain about the heat in German.

READ ALSO: Germany braces for temperatures around 40C

Health advice

Let’s start with the government’s health advice on staying safe in a heatwave.

Very high temperatures pose a risk to health and even life, so this is something to take seriously. The German weather forecaster DWD regularly issues weather warnings, for extreme weather including heatwaves.

As shown in the map below from the DWD, a ‘purple’ heatwave warning was issued on Wednesday August 3rd.

Screenshot: German Weather Service.

When temperatures get high, the government issues health advice on staying safe, which includes: drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated, staying indoors if possible during the hottest part of the day (afternoon and early evening), staying in the shade, wearing sun cream and looking after the very young and the very old.

Homes

If you come from a country where air conditioning is standard you are in for a shock in Germany – Klimaanlage (air con) is rare in private homes, although you will find it in many shops, restaurants, cinemas and offices.

But that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to keep your home cool, especially if you have shutters. It is advisable to get as much air ventilating through your apartment as possible, while also blocking the sun from coming in through south-facing windows.

Pets

If you think you’re hot and bothered, imagine being covered in fur when the temperature tops 40C.

Your pets need special care during a heatwave too, from an altered walk schedule to hot-weather trims and special cooling devices (which your cat will probably ignore).

Wildfires and drought

Given that drought and heatwaves have been common features of summer since 2018, wildfires have become more of a problem, especially in the east of the country near Berlin.

If you live in an area where wildfires are common, make sure you pay regular attention to the DWD’s wildfire threat index so you get the latest advice on whether you need to evacuate.

Cool places

Naturally, some parts of Germany get hotter than others, so if you’re not a fan of the heat, now might be the time to escape to a cool and shady place near you.

READ ALSO: 8 of the coolest places in Germany to visit on hot summer days

Cities get very hot during heatwaves (due to the heat sink effect) so it is a good idea to escape the city if you can to try and enjoy the sunny weather at a lake outside the city.

Larger German cities also have outdoor swimming pools that often have shady gardens that provide a good place to find relief from the heat.

Mobile relief

It might be a good idea to take a portable fan with you when you are moving around the city. Underground trains in cities such as Berlin and Munich are not equipped with air-con systems meaning that they become almost unbearably warm during the afternoon heat.

Taking a fan with you might just about help you get through the pain.

German phrases

And of course, you will want to get involved in the universal pastime for hot weather – complaining about how µ%*%ing hot it is. Check out some ways to talk about the heat in our list of strange German weather colloquialisms.

READ ALSO: Warnings of water shortages as heatwave reaches Germany

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