Employees' rights at work during cold weather

Discover more on employees' rights during hot and cold weather conditions with our guide that's designed to equip employers with the knowledge they need to ensure their workforce's health and safety.

James Rowland

Commercial Director James leads Account Management, Sales and Marketing at Neathouse Partners.

Date

19 February 2024

Updated

12 June 2024
4 min read
featured

Employers have to provide employees with a reasonable indoor temperature in the workplace according to the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations.

The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations also require reasonable workplace temperatures for indoor areas of construction sites. If a working site is positioned outdoors, employers must provide sufficient protection from adverse weather, and rest facilities for workers must be maintained at an appropriate and comfortable temperature.

Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, employers must assess risks to workers and put measures in place to protect them. Temperature is a risk that should be assessed, regardless of whether work is taking place inside or outside. Workers (or their union representatives) should also be consulted to ensure ongoing discussions about how to manage and ensure comfortable working temperatures. 

 

Legally, how cold can an office be in the UK?

Employee dressed in thick knit working on a laptop

There is no legal specification for employers when it comes to office temperature, or legally-specified minimum or maximum temperatures. That said, during working hours, temperatures in all indoor workplaces must be reasonable. Guidance suggests a minimum or 16ºC for workers sitting in an office, or 13ºC if workers are undertaking physical labour. 

There is no upper legal limit when it comes to temperature as a result of hot weather/heatwaves. However, employers are expected to adhere to health and safety legislation and maintain comfortable temperatures at work, as well as providing fresh air. Action should be taken by the employer to reduce working temperatures should they reach up to 24°C, with an absolute maximum of 30°C.

Employers and employees should have open discussions if a workplace temperature isn't comfortable. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) doesn't state a maximum workplace temperature because some workplaces have an expectation of high temperatures (such as in foundries or glass works). There are also other factors besides air temperature in hot working environments, including air velocity and humidity. That said, if the temperature at work is uncomfortably high, employers must take reasonable steps to ensure that the workplace is comfortable.

 

Can employees refuse to work if it's too cold in an office?

Cold office

This isn't a simple question to answer and it will depend on the circumstances, including how extremely hot or cold the temperature in the office has become, how long conditions are likely to continue, and the steps that have already been taken by the employer to reduce staff discomfort.

If the employer has taken all reasonable steps to maintain a comfortable office temperature, an employee's refusal to work could be handled as misconduct, but employers should be wary of responding with disciplinary action, because this could lead the employee to commence legal proceedings. This is because the situation would be classed as a health and safety matter that was brought to the employer's attention, and to respond with disciplinary action and/or dismissal could be seen as unlawful detriment, with the employer forcing the employee to work in unsafe conditions. 

If an employee feels so physically uncomfortable due to extreme temperatures that they’re threatening to stop working, any steps taken by the employer should be taken with care. If an employer pressures a worker into working in extreme temperatures, this could result in their forced resignation and could give a worker a potentially viable basis for a claim for constructive dismissal.

 

Is it illegal for an employer to have no heating?

A fork lift operator wearing safety gloves

Should an employer fail in its duty to give workers a reasonable and comfortable temperature at work, not only will this lead to staff complaints, but it could lead to claims brought against an employer for breach of statutory duty should an extremely cold and unheated office result in injury or illness. An employer could also be prosecuted for breaches of health and safety law. 

A damaged reputation and high staff turnover are other consequences the employer might face. It's very important that employers undertake a risk assessment for thermal comfort, and take steps to maintain a comfortable office and control any risks that arise all year round.

If an employee feels that their employer isn't providing adequate heating, they should raise their concerns with the employer's HR department, and if the issue remains unresolved, they can escalate the complaint to the HSE. If the issue is ignored by the employer, workers are within their rights to seek legal advice to see if a claim can be brought.

 

Can a cold office make staff ill?

In short, yes. A cold office environment can potentially contribute to staff becoming ill. It could lower a person's immune response, as cold temperatures can weaken the immune system, making the body more vulnerable to viruses and bacteria. This can causes viruses to spread more quickly, leading to potential absenteeism. 

Cold offices can also dry out the nasal passages and throat, making it easier for viruses to enter the body and causing respiratory infections. In cold buildings, the body's muscles become stiff and tense, which in extreme cases can exacerbate muscular strains. For people with conditions such as arthritis or asthma, cold temperatures can make symptoms worse. As cold offices usually cause great amounts of discomfort, it can lead to low morale and a reduction in productivity if employees aren't happy. 

It's important for employers to follow best practice and maintain a comfortable temperature in the workplace with adequate heating if necessary. According to a study conducted in Germany back in 2019, "women's brains work better at higher temperatures, while men work better when the temperature is cooler. The study of 500 men and women concluded that companies could boost productivity levels by having the heating higher in their offices. 

What are the symptoms of cold stress?

Hypothermia at the office

Cold stress occurs when the body loses heat more quickly than the rate it can produce it. This leads to many symptoms including shivering, and tingling or numbness in extremities like fingers and toes, which is an indication that the body is trying to generate more heat.

As cold exposure continues, symptoms escalate to intense shivering, fatigue, confusion and problems with speech. Skin may start to become blue, pale and cold, which reflects poor circulation. A dangerously low body temperature can cause a slowed heart rate, shallow breathing and loss of consciousness.

 
Are cold offices more productive?


Research has shown that a colder office can benefit men, but can make women less productive. During a test of 543 students, when participants were given mathematical and letter tests to solve, women performed better when the room was warmer.

Boosting the thermostat by just a degree led to a 2% increase in women's productivity scores. Given the many health concerns that cold offices can bring, alongside low staff morale, keeping a comfortable temperature in the office is essential for promoting productivity, employee well-being and overall job satisfaction.

 

We can advise on health and safety issues


Our team of professionals at  Neathouse Partners can advise on how to stay compliant with current safety legislation and create documents or templates for your health and safety policy. Our team of HR consultants and employment lawyers can help you navigate the process to ensure that your staff and business are protected and safe.

Call 0333 041 1094 today or use our contact form.

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