With many people waking up to the coldest day of the winter so far, workers across the country could be faced with the prospect of heading in to a freezing workplace. Indeed, office temperature is a critical issue for employers and employees alike. So what exactly are the legal issues surrounding an uncomfortably cold workplace?
The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations of 1992, state that ‘[d]uring working hours,the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be reasonable.’
This relates to a minimum workplace temperature 16°C, or 13°C if you are doing work that requires extreme physical effort. However, these figures are guidelines rather than legal limits and also do not take into account the nature of the workplace (i.e. different levels would apply for bakeries, cold stores and warehouses).
The regulations state: ‘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.’
What if workplace temperature falls below these levels?
Speaking during the 2010 cold-snap John McClean, GMB National Health and Safety Officer, reminded businesses what to do if temperatures dip below advised levels, and thermal comfort levels suffer significantly.
He said: “If the temperature drops below these levels the employer is obliged by law to bring in additional heaters to raise temperatures to the legal minimum requirements.
“Those exposed to risks of falls in slippery conditions may need to be redeployed to suitable alternative work if gritting cannot be done or if the ice cannot be removed.”
Measures to improve thermal comfort
If the cold weather really begins to bite, the HSE recommend the following measures to prevent thermal discomfort in a cold workplace:
- Reduce cold exposure by minimising processes that involve spending time in cold areas.
- Provide adequate heating, including extra heaters if required.
- Provide suitable protective equipment to deal with harsh temperatures.
- Reduce draughts.
- Introduce alternative working patterns such as flexible working to minimise employee exposure to a cold workplace.
- Provide enough breaks for workers to make hot drinks and/or spend time in heated areas.
- Provide appropriate insulating floor covering or protective footwear if employees are expected to stand for extended periods of time.
Another good way to adapt to falling workplace temperatures is to be prepared. It is advisable that employers conduct a thorough risk assessment regarding the effects of extreme temperatures in their workplace.
Don’t get caught out
In 2010 Carlisle County Council handed a fine of £2000 plus costs to a retailer who failed to comply with an improvement notice that requested they improve inadequate heating in their workplace.
After receiving several complaints, an inspector visited the premises and recorded temperatures that were as low as 7.6 degrees. Upon subsequent visits temperatures of lower than 16 degrees were recorded on both occasions, in spite of an improvement notice issued under Section 21 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. This lead to the charges to which they pleaded guilty.
Don’t get caught out in your office; you can read more about thermal comfort in the workplace, and all the legal issues surrounding it, at the HSE’s Thermal Comfort Microsite.
Snow Joke: Advice from Office Genie's HR director Sarah Sutton
But what if you can't make it in to the office in the first place? HR Director at Genie, Sarah Sutton, explains the legal issues around working on a snow day:
"Employees have a responsibility to carry out their working day in the most practical fashion. If they are unable to travel safely into the office then the next most sensible option is generally a day working remotely.
"If this too is impractical, then employers should have an inclement weather policy in place to provide answers in this situation.
"Suitable alternatives to work could be either paid or unpaid leave, or giving an employee the option to make up the time. Indeed, even if some time is missed due to a delayed train or a prolonged journey - the onus remains on the employee to make this time up - although I would expect an employer to use judgement and act reasonably in this situation.
"Employers priorities should be to ensure clarity, and most importantly safety, for their employees.
"Ultimately, employers are liable for the safety of their employees. If they do fail to protect them from hazardous conditions in the workplace, they are at risk of serious legal act."
Updated: 12th January 2017 (Original post: 30th November 2012)