Since the cold weather hit, my staff have been complaining about the temperature in our offices, and also in our factory. What are my legal obligations?
Under health and safety legislation, you have to ensure the health, safety and welfare of your employees at work as far as is reasonably practicable. The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 deal with working environments, with reg.7 stipulating that: “During working hours, the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be reasonable.” Of course, what is reasonable depends on the type of workplace and will be different for, say, an office compared with a cold store. Regulation 7 also provides that employers should provide a sufficient number of thermometers in a workplace so that workers can find out what the temperature actually is.
The associated code of practice advises that the temperature in workrooms and factories should normally 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 are not absolute legal requirements; the employer’s essential duty is to determine what reasonable comfort will be in the particular circumstances. The Health and Safety Executive states that “the best you (an employer) can realistically hope to achieve is a thermal environment that satisfies the majority of people in the workplace”. Thermal comfort is therefore measured by “the number of employees complaining of thermal discomfort”.
Ideally, you should consult with employees or their representatives on the working environment. In the case of both factories and offices, you should look at practical solutions for alleviating colder temperatures such as issuing warmer clothing (factories) and portable heaters.
From an employment law perspective, if a disabled employee is put at a substantial disadvantage due to the cold temperature compared with his or her non-disabled colleagues, you have a duty to make reasonable adjustments in order to alleviate the adverse effect. For example, if an employee had rheumatoid arthritis and cold temperatures exacerbated their symptoms, you would be under a duty to make reasonable adjustments to prevent the colder weather having that effect. You will, therefore, need to give consideration to employees’ individual circumstances if they complain about the cold.
If an employee can show that the temperature in the workplace is such that they reasonably believe there is a “serious and imminent” danger to their safety and refuse to attend work, you must be wary about dismissing them or raising disciplinary action as they may qualify for protection from a particular type of victimisation relating to health and safety.
Eleanor Gilbert, solicitor, employment team and Euros Jones, associate, regulatory team, Weightmans LLP
XpertHR FAQs on workplace temperature