Last reviewed 27 March 2018

Do employees have a legal right to go home when the workplace temperature is too hot (or indeed too cold?) for comfort? And what do employers, facilities and environment managers need to do to ensure that the indoor environment is “just right”, whether in terms of temperature, air quality or more general considerations of design and aesthetics? Caroline Hand reports.

What the law requires

Temperature

People frequently ask whether there is a legal maximum or minimum workplace temperature, and surprisingly the answer is “no”. The relevant legislation is found in the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, which merely require employers to provide a “reasonable” temperature in the workplace. The Approved Code of Practice (ACOP) for these regulations suggests a minimum temperature in workrooms of 16°C, or 13°C where staff are engaged in heavy physical work. This is quite a lot colder than the 21–23°C which is generally viewed as the optimum indoor temperature range.

When it comes to high temperatures, there is not even an officially recommended maximum, as this would cause problems for industries where high temperatures are unavoidable, such as glass foundries and steel works. However, the TUC has long been pressing for a legal maximum of 30°C, or 27°C for those doing strenuous work. The World Health Organization recommends 24°C as the maximum temperature for working in comfort.

The absence of legal temperature limits does not mean that employers can ignore the discomfort caused to their staff by an unacceptably hot or cold workplace. General health and safety risk assessments should take temperature into account, looking particularly at the effects on vulnerable workers such as pregnant women, older workers and those with disabilities. Our earlier article Some like it hot — is there an ideal office temperature? explains how the temperature is just part of the picture when it comes to thermal comfort — humidity, air movement, and the kind of clothing worn, all work together to determine whether an individual will feel comfortable. This article also describes the practical steps that managers can take to prevent people from becoming uncomfortably hot.

Indoor air quality

Compliance with the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations will ensure that people are protected from exposure to those hazardous chemicals which are used or produced in the workplace. But what about the low-level exposures to contaminants such as cleaning and DIY products, mould and dust, or just polluted city air drawn in from outside? Complaints of “sick building syndrome” are notoriously difficult to substantiate and it can be difficult to separate the effects of poor indoor air quality from symptoms associated with workplace stress ancd fatigue.

Our article Achieving good indoor air quality describes in detail the range of contaminants which may be present, and the surprisingly high prevalence of symptoms suffered by office workers. This article quotes a 2016 survey by the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) which found that almost 70% of those office workers surveyed “believed poor air quality in their place of work is having a negative effect on their day-to-day productivity and wellbeing” and a third are “concerned that poor indoor air quality could be having a negative effect on their health”.

As with “reasonable” temperature, the need for ventilation is specified in the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations, which require effective and suitable provision to be made to “ensure that every enclosed workplace is ventilated by a sufficient quantity of fresh or purified air”.

Additionally, the Building Regulations (Part F) specify adequate fresh air rates and set performance criteria for several air pollutants including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — solvents, etc — and carbon monoxide.

Lighting

Within the office environment, lighting is believed to have more impact on staff productivity than any other environmental factor. People work better when their office is well-lit, ideally with natural light. Employers have duties under the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 and the Display Screen Equipment Regulations 1992 to make sure lighting provided is adequate and provides protection against glare, reflection and any other visual interference. As with temperature, there is a need to get it “just right” — harsh fluorescent lighting can be just as unpleasant as a dim yellowish bulb. Today’s architects and designers have realised that people prefer natural light from outside, but even in an older building with few windows, lighting which simulates natural daylight can make an improvement to workers’ wellbeing.

Noise

Open plan offices may be great for networking and socialising, but the levels of noise can be a problem for some workers. The Control of Noise at Work Regulations protect workers’ hearing from the kind of loud noise that is likely to be encountered in an industrial setting but don’t tackle the irritating distraction of colleagues’ conversations or the noise of office equipment. Various solutions have been found by different organisations, from noise-reducing headphones to private cubicles where workers can focus on demanding tasks without distraction. Noise is quite a subjective issue and individuals will have different thresholds of tolerance — some prefer to work to music, while others crave silence. See our article Do not disturb — a closer look at the open-plan office for further discussion.

The fairy-tale workplace

Would you like to spend your day at the office playing with Lego, skateboarding in a suspended bowl, sliding down giant tubes or quietly sitting among authentic trees and rocks? All these attractions are on offer from big-name employers for whom money is no object. The reason is that happy, active workers are more creative and productive, and of course, staff retention is likely to be higher when staff can spend their rest break playing the latest virtual reality games — or perhaps ping pong — rather than sipping tepid tea beside the printer.

However, for employers who don’t quite have the budget of Google, there are still some helpful insights to be gained from the design gurus. Colour, for example, it seems that a green colour scheme fosters creativity, red boosts energy and blue engenders calm. Common sense dictates that comfortable, ergonomically designed furniture will contribute to wellbeing and productivity. Most award-winning office buildings feature a pleasant place for staff to relax away from their desks, and ideally a natural view from the window for them to gaze on when their eyes need a rest. In urban areas, this could be provided by a roof garden or courtyard with plants. If this is not possible, there is evidence to show that people are more creative when surrounded by original artwork — perhaps colleagues could create their own designs to display.

At the most basic level, simply reducing clutter, whether in the office or on individual desks, can reduce stress. Spacing out the furniture can give a greater sense of privacy — this could be combined with introducing shared desks for collaborative working.

And finally, don’t forget the humble pot plant. They breathe out oxygen, reduce contaminants and bring a bit of “nature” into the dingiest office!