Given that a ‘mini heatwave’ has been predicted for Northern Ireland this week, a topical rights issue is that of comfortable maximum workplace temperatures.
Whilst many employees would probably welcome a heat wave, for those in offices or lines of work with a tendency to excessive temperatures, it may be less desirable as the symptoms can include discomfort, dehydration and exhaustion. Each of these can harm productivity and increase absenteeism.
Beyond this, employers have a legal duty to ensure the welfare of their employees and workers. In this area it is centred on the idea of ‘thermal comfort’ - how acceptable a person considers their current temperature. It is determined by both environmental factors (such as the sources of heat in the workplace and the degree of humidity) and personal factors (such as clothing worn and the physical exertion required by the work). As thermal comfort depends on the individual as well as the environment, the easiest way to establish whether a workplace is thermally comfortable is to ask the workers or their representatives. At a bare minimum, at least 80% must be satisfied with the thermal environment, according to the Health and Safety Executive. If fewer than 80% are satisfied, the employer should take action. Examining the air temperature of the workplace alone may be insufficient as a measure of thermal comfort, as this may still be inappropriate if there is, for instance, excess humidity or the nature of the work is physically demanding.
Workplace temperatures are governed by two pieces of legislation. The duty of employers to provide a comfortable temperature is a statutory duty under the Health and Safety at Work (Northern Ireland) Order 1978, and is part of a wider duty to ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of employees at work. Additionally, the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations (Northern Ireland) Order 1993 requires that, during working hours, the temperature of every workplace in a building be reasonable. Reasonable temperatures are not specified in the regulations, but the Health and Safety Executive states that the acceptable range of thermal comfort for most people lies between 13°C (56°F) and 30°C (86°F). Workers undertaking more physically demanding activities are likely to find temperatures towards the lower end of the scale more suitable, whilst less physically strenuous activities will be towards the higher end.
There are a number of practical ways to address any problems with excess temperature. Indoor workplaces frequently have air conditioning which can be adjusted accordingly, but even if this is not available, the temperature can be reduced in other ways. These include providing fans, opening windows, installing blinds (to reduce direct sunlight), the provision of cold drinking water, more frequent breaks, and relaxing the dress code (provided this does not compromise health and 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 on 0800 0320 121 or by visiting their website at www.hseni.gov.uk.
Adam Tinson is an Information and Policy Officer with Citizens Advice.