As temperatures in the UK plummet to below freezing, experts are suggesting this current cold snap may be a sign of things to come, with some predicting the worst winter in over 5 years.
Public Health England have issued a warning to prepare for a long spell of cold and advising those at risk to take precautions. In the workplace colder weather can have an adverse effect on employees, not only their productivity but it can also make carrying out some roles more hazardous.
You may be surprised to hear that legally there is no minimum or maximum temperature in the workplace that employers must stick to, only a number of guidelines.
Regulation 7, under the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 states: “During working hours, the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be reasonable” and “provide reasonable comfort without the need for special clothing.”
Guidance on working temperature varies depending on the nature of the environment, with a suggested minimum temperature of 16 degrees. For employees doing physical work this is lowered to 13 degrees. There are no guidelines for maximum temperature.
Employers are however required to provide fresh, clean air for workers and keep the temperature at a comfortable level. Employees must not be exposed to draughts and additional heating should be provided if it gets too cold. During spells of colder weather, flexible work patterns or job rotations may be advised and breaks should be allowed for staff to have hot drinks. Thermostats should also be available so that staff can measure the temperature.
One case that highlights the dangers of not providing sufficient warmth occurred in 2014 with the death of a security guard from carbon monoxide positioning after he took matters into his own hands to keep warm. Faced with sub-zero temperatures when a generator failed, he lit a fire inside the container he was working in, exposing him to deadly fumes.
His employer was found guilty and fined for breaching the Health & Safety at Work Act. The situation was worsened by the fact the employee was working alone and that there was no procedure in place for assisting a lone worker in emergencies.
Although sending workers home due to cold weather is currently at an employer’s discretion, employers do have a Duty of Care to look after the health and wellbeing of their workforce. Therefore, if working conditions are becoming unpleasant due to the temperature then staff should be encouraged to inform their employer.
In the future a minimum temperature may be introduced as unions such as Unite are campaigning for laws protecting workers to be tightened. Until then it’s best for both employers and individuals to stay vigilant and be aware of how environmental factors affect their ability to work safely.