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Germany to warn of future floods with phone alerts

Germany will issue mobile phone alerts in the future to inform citizens of impending dangers, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said on Monday after deadly floods prompted a rethink of the country's warning systems.

Germany to warn of future floods with phone alerts
Wreckage in Bad Münstereifel after the floods in western Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Thomas Banneyer

“Not everyone has always been enthusiastic about the idea in recent months. But I’ve decided that we’re going to do it… There is no reasonable argument against it,” Seehofer said in parliament.

At least 180 people died when severe floods pummelled western Germany over two days in mid-July, raising questions about whether enough was done to warn residents ahead of time.

Some 70 people are still missing after torrents of water ripped through entire towns and villages, destroying bridges, roads, railways and swathes of housing.

READ ALSO: German floods death reach toll reaches 180 – and dozens still missing

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer on Monday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

Government spokeswoman Martina Fietz last week said the country’s weather warning system and mobile phone app Nina had “worked” but admitted that “our experiences with this disaster show that we need to do more and better”.

Armin Schuster, president of the German civil protection agency (BBK), called for sirens to be reinstated in more areas.

He also said the agency was considering introducing mobile phone alerts, but “a number of issues” would need to be talked through first, including the costs and data protection concerns.

READ ALSO:

The alerts would be sent using a technology known as cell broadcast, which enables local authorities to send messages to multiple mobile phone users in a particular area at the same time.

The alerts are similar to SMS messages, but can be sent and received anonymously and have the advantage of still working when networks are overloaded.

The technology is not widely used in Europe, but is common in the US and Japan.

Seehofer on Monday called for a mix of analogue and digital warnings. “The warning app is of no use if you are asleep at night and don’t hear it. The siren, in turn, is of no use on its own because it doesn’t tell people: What should they do?”

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READER QUESTIONS

Reader question: Is it ever too hot to work from home in Germany?

Germany has regulations on working during a heatwave - but does that also apply to people who work remotely? We take a look.

Reader question: Is it ever too hot to work from home in Germany?

The number of people working from home shot up during the Covid pandemic, and though employees no longer have the right to work remotely by law, many have chosen to stick with more flexible arrangements and set up a home office at least part of the week.

This is great news for people who enjoy a lie-in more than a long commute, but there are some downsides. One major issue is that it’s not always clear how Germany’s strict employee protection rules actually apply in a home setting. The rules for working during a heatwave are a good example of this.

How does Germany regulate working in extreme heat? 

By law in Germany, employers are responsible for creating a safe environment for their workers. This means that they should try and keep the temperature below 26C at all times and are legally obliged to take action if the temperature goes above 30C. 

That could include putting blinds on the windows to prevent the glare of the sun, installing air conditioning systems or purchasing fans. In some cases – such as outdoor manual labour – it could also involve starting and finishing earlier in the day. 

And in really high temperatures, employers may simply decide to call the whole thing off and give their employees a ‘hitzefrei’ day – basically a heat-induced day off – to go and cool down in a lake. However, business owners are generally given free rein to decide how hot is too hot in this instance (except in the case of vulnerable workers). 

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

Do the heat rules apply to ‘home office?’

Unfortunately not. In most cases in Germany, the company isn’t directly involved in setting up the workspace for an employee that works from home, aside from possibly providing a laptop or phone for remote use. 

“The occupational health and safety regulations regarding room temperature do not apply in this case,” labour law expert Meike Brecklinghaus told German business publication T3N. “This is because the employer does not have direct access to the employee’s workplace and in this respect cannot take remedial action.”

That means that on hot days, it’s the employee’s own responsibility to make sure the environment is suitable for working in. 

woman works from home in Germany

A woman works in her living room at home. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Naupold

One duty employers do have, however, is to instruct their workers about the best way to set up a healthy work environment at home, for example by giving guidance on how to regulate the temperature. 

“In the end, it is the employee’s responsibility to maintain his or her workplace in a condition in which he or she can perform his or her work without the threat of health impairments,” Brecklinghaus explained.

What can home office workers do in hot weather?

There are plenty of ways to keep flats cooler in the summer months, including purchasing your own fan, keeping curtains or blinds drawn and ventilating the rooms in the evening or early morning when the weather is cooler.

However, if heat is really becoming a problem, it’s a good idea to communicate this to your employer. This is especially important if you have a health condition that makes it more dangerous to work in hot weather. 

In some cases, you might be able to negotiate for the employer to pay for the purchase of a fan or mobile air conditioner as goodwill gesture. If possible, you could also arrange to travel to the office where the temperature should be better regulated.

Another option for early birds or night owls is to arrange more flexible working hours so you can avoid sweltering at your desk in the midday sun, although this of course depends on operational factors. 

READ ASO: Jobs in Germany: Should foreign workers join a union?

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