French bus drivers wear skirts to protest prohibition on shorts

As temperatures climbed to 100 degrees Fahrenheit in a nationwide heatwave, bus drivers in the city of Nantes, France, asked for some slack in their dress code.

They thought it was a reasonable request. Many of them said they worked in buses without air-conditioning. But their request to wear shorts was turned down by local authorities, so the drivers decided to make a symbolic point about the right to bare knees.

A group of the male drivers protested the dress code by showing up to work in the skirts female bus drivers could wear.

“Our uniform is not appropriate for these high temperatures. We envy women at moments like this,” bus driver Didier Sauvetre told the local Presse Ocean paper about why the men had donned skirts.

“To spend more than seven hours in a vehicle in 50°C [122°F] temperatures is not easy,” Gabriel Magner, a union representative for the drivers, said. “Above 30°C [86°F] the management could put a heatwave plan into action and allow drivers to wear shorts. We’ve been asking for this since 2013.”

The president of the bus company Semitan, Pascal Bolo, was unmoved by this knee-length display. “It’s hard but it’s only a few days of the year,” he said. Rules were rules and the company had already introduced summer trousers for the drivers that were made of lighter material.

But on Tuesday, Semitan had changed its tune and announced that it would let drivers wear shorts in dress-code colors until the company got an updated uniform.

When is it too hot to work?

The bus drivers’ story brings up a larger question that’s still unresolved legally in France and most of the world: when is it too hot to work?

The technical answer is: never.

There is no exact legal maximum temperature for what is acceptable in the workplace in France, the United Kingdom, or the United States.

Although there’s no exact limit, labor codes in France allow workers to take on their employer if they believe their health is in danger in the workplace. The Trade Unions Congress, which represents the majority of unions for England and Wales, does not have a temperature limit, but they would like one to be passed into law that would make 30°C [86°F] the legal limit. Until then, they strongly recommend practical remedies to make employees as comfortable as possible.

Under these heatwave recommendations, employers should be flexible with their working arrangements and let employees work earlier or later in the day, when it’s not as hot. They should also relax their dress codes and make cooling amenities like sunscreen and personal fans available to employees.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has similar guidelines. In addition to what TUC recommends, it advises employees to wear lightweight, loose-fitting clothing and for employers to keep hydrating fluids on hand for employees. While it doesn’t require employers to maintain a temperature in the workplace, it does recommend a working climate between 68 and 78 degrees Fahrenheit. Anyone who feels that their employer’s working conditions are affecting your health and are causing you heat stress, you can take your case to OSHA.

Until your heat stress reaches that level, the government agency’s advice to you is to deal with it.

“Office temperature and humidity conditions are generally a matter of human comfort rather than hazards that could cause death or serious physical harm,” it said in a 2003 letter on indoor office air quality. “OSHA cannot cite the General Duty Clause for personal discomfort.”

You hear that, men? When it gets warm, don your protest skirts and carry on.