Are workplace temperatures causing you friction?
Employers know that to manage effectively they need clear, unambiguous policies in place that are implemented fairly.
As a nation we are obsessed with the weather. Too cold, and we moan through chattering teeth, longing to be basking in sunshine. Too hot, and we swelter, yearning for a refreshing breeze.
Uncomfortable temperatures at our place of work often take on great significance and whilst grievances can arise in any workplace, having clear policies in place to help to combat them.
However the law in the UK relating to workplace temperatures is far from clear-cut.
The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 lay down certain requirements for most aspects of the working environment, specifically Regulation 7 which highlights advised indoor workplace temperatures.
The Regulation states
“During working hours, the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be reasonable.”
Just what does “
reasonable” mean in terms of workplace temperatures? How can employers ensure that the provisions they make for their employees are, in this legal sense,”reasonable”?
We can, surmise that “
reasonable” depends on the nature of the business and the workplace: so to take an extreme example, what might be regarded as “reasonable” workplace temperatures in a bakery would not apply to a cold store.
Nonetheless the law and the regulations take into account the nature of the work; If for example the business involves hard physical toil, such as brick-laying or hand-picking vegetables, then it is “reasonable” to expect staff to operate in lower workplace temperatures than would be comfortable for office-workers.
Other factors taken into account by the law include training and specialist or protective clothing or equipment supplied for the task.
So it would be “reasonable” to expect that an operative working within a steel rolling-mill would be trained in all relevant aspects of Health and Safety matters affected by working in and around extremely high workplace temperatures.
It would also be “reasonable” to expect that the steel-worker’s employer should provide suitable safety equipment and regular breaks, however for an office-worker to demand the same “perks” would not be “reasonable”.
Approved Code of Practice (Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 explains: “The temperature in workrooms should provide reasonable comfort without the need for special clothing. Where such a temperature is impractical because of hot or cold processes, all reasonable steps should be taken to achieve a temperature which is as close as possible to comfortable. ‘Workroom’ means a room where people normally work for more than short periods.
The Code of Practice is clear:
The temperature in workrooms should be at least 16 degrees Celsius unless much of the work involves severe physical effort in which case the temperature should be at least 13 degrees Celsius. These temperatures may not, however, ensure reasonable comfort, depending on other factors such as air movement and relative humidity.”
However the inclusion of what is generally known as the “Human Factor” can spark grievances. For what feels comfortable and acceptable for one person may be just too hot or too cold for another.
If the Law on workplace temperatures is so imprecise- How can employers be expected to abide by them?
Just why is the law so imprecise in this area?
Specialist Health & Safety legislation protects those working within particular business sectors – which means that regulations covering the industrial production of steel do not apply to firms making cardboard boxes. It can therefore be difficult to formulate PRECISE laws to cover ALL circumstances, which is why the law resorts to that word: “reasonable”: it may be loose and imprecise, and thus problematical – but it works. In the main!
Sound Advice advises ensuring that employees operate within optimum conditions is a key challenge for any employer.
While people’s individual perceptions of workplace temperatures may vary, the facts are that the human body is suited to function best within a relatively narrow range.
If the ambient workplace temperature (that which surrounds us) rises or falls far enough and for long enough, it will start to affect the body’s core temperature. Small changes in this can have very serious effects.
Figures supplied by the Health & Safety Executive: Hot 44°C (111°F) or more – Almost certainly death will occur; however, patients have been known to survive up to 46.5°C (115.7°F). 43°C (109°F) – Normally death, or there may be serious brain damage, continuous convulsions and shock. Cardio-respiratory collapse will likely occur. 42°C (108°F) – Subject may turn pale or remain flushed and red. They may become comatose, be in severe delirium, vomiting, and convulsions can occur. Blood pressure may be high or low and heart rate will be very fast. 41C (106°F) – (Medical emergency) Fainting, vomiting, severe headache, dizziness, confusion, hallucinations, delirium and drowsiness can occur. There may also be palpitations and breathlessness. 40°C (104°F) – Fainting, dehydration, weakness, vomiting, headache and dizziness may occur as well as profuse sweating. Starts to be life-threatening. 39°C (102°F) – Severe sweating, flushed and red. Fast heart rate and breathlessness. There may be exhaustion accompanying this. Children and people with epilepsy may be very likely to get convulsions at this point. 38°C (100°F) – (this is classed as hyperthermia if not caused by a fever) Feeling hot, sweating, feeling thirsty, feeling very uncomfortable, slightly hungry. If this is caused by fever, there may also be chills. Normal 37°C (98.6°F) – Normal internal body temperature (which varies between about 36.12 – 37.5°C (97.02 – 99.50°F) Cold 36°C (97°F) – Feeling cold, mild to moderate shivering (body temperature may drop this low during sleep). May be a normal body temperature. 35°C (95°F) – (Hypothermia is less than 35°C (95°F)) – Intense shivering, numbness and bluish/grayness of the skin. There is the possibility of heart irritability. 34°C (93°F) – Severe shivering, loss of movement of fingers, blueness and confusion. Some behavioural changes may take place. 33°C (91°F) – Moderate to severe confusion, sleepiness, depressed reflexes, progressive loss of shivering, slow heart beat, shallow breathing. Shivering may stop. Subject may be unresponsive to certain stimuli. 32°C (90°F) – (Medical emergency) Hallucinations, delirium, complete confusion, extreme sleepiness that is progressively becoming comatose. Shivering is absent (subject may even think they are hot). Reflex may be absent or very slight. The HSE advises: “Where the temperature in a workroom would otherwise be uncomfortably high, for example because of hot processes or the design of the building, all reasonable steps should be taken to achieve a reasonably comfortable temperature”. Further such steps might include: These might include different work-wear policies and here we would strongly urge CLARITY: while shorts or skirts might be cooler for the wearer, are they truly appropriate for your business? Think this through carefully, and formulate summer-wear policy in consultation with staff, your HR department – and specialists such as Sound Advice who bring experience gleaned from working across many sectors over many years. Our advice to all employers, big or small, affluent or operating on the tightest budget is “be prepared” & have in place provisions for more extreme conditions. Installing electric fans in the office Shading windows Opening ventilation ducts and windows. Check that these work properly, without posing risks to safety or security; and where appropriate, that the air conditioning is properly maintained. Ensuring that water or other cool drinks are available for all. Introducing “fresh air breaks” – and not just for smokers! Consulting staff BEFORE hot (or cold) weather spells are due, to get a firm understanding of their views, and any possible cultural, behavioral or health issues. Insulating hot plants or pipes Sitting workstations away from places subject to radiant heat
Above all – prepare your policies, and ensure they are known and fully understood by all staff. Regular updates are helpful, and remember to include this information in the induction process for new starters.
Furthermore policies need to be formulated on the basis of sound common-sense, in the best interest of the business and all who work there. In other words, ensure your policies are truly “reasonable” and are implemented and managed with a flexible and open approach.
We will always support employers, and we understand the pressures and frustrations they face. Yet we urge that best interest of all parties for us to guide businesses toward best practice wherever possible.
To conclude: try to remember – we’re all human, people react differently, and everyday stresses and strains of working alongside other people, each with their own quirks and foibles, can be exacerbated by extreme workplace temperatures. Try to ensure you (and HR managers where appropriate) judge each situation on its own merits, while applying your policies fairly and flexibly.
As an employer, it is important to lead from the front by staying cool – and by giving warm appreciation to your hard-working staff when it’s called for