The office temperature is one of the most common employee gripes. For most of the year, air conditioning casts an Arctic chill over our desks. It’s even become a gender issue: air conditioning is calibrated to men’s body temperatures and metabolisms, often leaving women uncomfortably cold.
But during the all-too-fleeting British summer, many offices have the opposite problem. When the air conditioning breaks down, or if it’s inadequate in the first place, we’re left sweaty, limp-haired and resentful, particularly if we work in a professional environment where “dress down” means chinos, not flip-flops. A too-hot office can be dangerous as well as uncomfortable for some people, with particular risks for the overweight, the over 65s, and those who suffer from high blood pressure or heart disease. It’s also associated with reduced sperm count.
Read more: The cost, by degrees, of a cold office
The temperature is rising
Unfortunately, although employers are under a legal obligation to provide a “reasonable” temperature in the workplace and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recommends a minimum temperature of 16°C (or a chilly 13°C for physically strenuous work), there is no official recommended maximum.
Trade unions have long campaigned for a maximum workplace temperature of 30°C for non-strenuous work (and the World Health Organisation recommends no more than 24°C), but the HSE has so far resisted these calls, arguing that it’s impossible to generalise and saying that some working environments (it cites foundries and glassworks) are naturally hotter. That’s not very helpful for those whose workplace merely feels like an industrial furnace as opposed to actually containing one.
The lack of a formal maximum temperature, however, does not mean that employers can simply sit back as their staff swelter. Employees obviously can’t just go home of their own accord; that would be treated as unauthorised absence and could result in disciplinary action. But they can and should raise the matter with their employer rather than just grumble among themselves.
If a significant number of staff complain about “thermal discomfort” or report symptoms of heat-related illnesses (such as dizziness, blurred vision or nausea), their employer is obliged to carry out a risk assessment and take steps to reduce such discomfort. An employer might be expected to provide fans or extra ventilation, move desks away from direct sunlight, relax the dress code to help staff to keep cool, or offer extra water dispensers. If these measures are not effective, the employer may be obliged to allow staff to work from home until the office returns to a reasonable temperature.
Employers also have particular duties to staff who are pregnant or suffering from a medical condition exacerbated by overheating. The employer must assess the risks to such staff and take steps to prevent them from suffering harm, such as allowing them to work from home or changing their hours temporarily so that they don’t have to use overheated public transport during rush hour.
Unfortunately, there is no law requiring employers to provide staff with free ice-cream or ice-cold beers in hot weather. But as an employee engagement strategy, it certainly wouldn’t hurt.