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”.
The associated 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:
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 at Sound Advice 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