Here’s hoping for a heat wave before the end of the summer! This article will look at the issue of temperatures in the workplace focusing on maximum temperatures rather than minimum.
‘Thermal Comfort’ describes a person’s state of mind in terms of whether they feel too hot or too cold. A combination of environmental factors (such as humidity and sources of heat in the workplace) and personal factors (such as clothing and how physically demanding the work is) influence thermal comfort. A simple way of estimating the level of thermal comfort in the workplace is to ask the workers or their workplace representatives. If the percentage of workers dissatisfied with the thermal environment is above a certain level the employer will need to take action (the Health and Safety Executive considers 80% of occupants as a reasonable limit for the minimum number of people who should be thermally comfortable in an environment). The most commonly used indicator of thermal comfort is air temperature and while important, if considered alone, may not be an accurate indicator of thermal comfort. Air temperature should always be considered in relation to other environmental and personal factors.
There is no legislation which lays down a maximum temperature for workplaces, however employers have a statutory duty under the Health and Safety at Work (Northern Ireland) Order 1978 to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees. This means an employer must ensure that the temperature of the workplace does not have a detrimental effect on the health of the employees, and take all reasonable steps to achieve a comfortable temperature.
The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1993 state that during working hours, the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be reasonable. While no maximum temperature is stated in the Regulations, guidance from the Health and Safety Executive states that an acceptable zone of thermal comfort for most people in the UK lies roughly between 13°C (56°F) and 30°C (86°F), with acceptable temperatures for more strenuous work activities concentrated towards the bottom end of the range, and more sedentary activities towards the higher end.
Employees may feel a number of symptoms due to working in temperatures which are too warm including dehydration or exhaustion. It is therefore important for employers to try to ensure reasonable workplace temperatures not only because of their legal duty to do so but also because productivity may fall and sickness absence may increase due to working in the heat.
There are a number of ways that you can manage thermal comfort in the workplace. Many indoor workplaces now have air conditioning which can be adjusted to ensure that the temperature is within the acceptable range for working in. Where a workplace does not have air conditioning there are a number of practical steps an employer can take to alleviate the effects of the heat, for example, providing fans, ensuring that windows can be opened, providing blinds to shade employees from direct sunlight, allowing more frequent breaks to allow employees to cool down, providing cool drinking water or relaxing the dress code (although employers should be careful that this does not impair safety).
Further information on all aspects of health and safety at work is available from your local CAB or from the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland on their One-2-One Helpline 0800 0320 121 or by visiting their website at www.hseni.gov.uk
Siobhan Harding is an Information and Policy Officer with Citizens Advice