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Heated arguments: Temperature wars in the office

thermometer-hotThe room temperature at work is an ongoing point of contention in many workplaces, including ours. It is either too cold in the summer or too hot in the winter.

In summer, it is common to see employees with sweaters or shivering at their workstations, suffering and complaining about how cold it is despite the heat outside. The reason: the dreaded central air conditioning. Despite their complaints, most employees feel they are unable to do anything about it.

Keeping offices comfortable for employees is a difficult task, since “comfortable” means something different to everyone. What’s the problem? A couple of degrees difference in temperature can have an adverse affect on a person’s comfort. This can affect employees’ attitudes, work performance and their relationships with others.

According to studies by Alan Hedge, a professor of ergonomics, design and environmental analysis at Cornell University, the temperature in a workplace affects productivity. Hedge and his team placed monitoring devices on employees’ desks to measure keystrokes and mouse movement at different temperatures.

The results: “We expected that when you cool people down, they work harder and better,” he says. “We found the exact opposite. When it was cool to colder in the office, people did less work and made more mistakes.”

Is workplace temperature regulated? And if yes, what does the law say?

Well in Canada, this is a health and safety issue.

Many Canadian occupational health and safety legislation and regulations specify a minimum temperature limit for work performed inside buildings that are normally heated, and for outside work.

For example, in Ontario, there is no maximum workplace temperature. However, the Industrial Establishments Regulation (under the Occupational Health and Safety Act) sets a minimum temperature of 18°C for healthcare facilities or industrial establishments, such as factories, shops and offices, subject to some exemptions for things like work outdoors or in freezers [Section 129 (1)]. The Construction Projects Regulation specifies a minimum of 27°C for underground change rooms [Section 260. (3) (d)], a maximum of 38°C for work chambers [Section 384], and where work is done in compressed air, the provision of a medical lock with a minimum of 18°C [Section 357] and maximum of 27°C [Section 380]. There are no set minimum or maximum temperatures for other workplaces.

Thus, in an office environment covered by the Industrial Establishment Regulation, the temperature should never be below 18°C unless subject to prescribed exemptions.

For specific rules in your jurisdiction, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOSH) has a good comparative chart and analysis on the topic.

Since either extreme heat or cold may be a hazard, temperature is a legitimate issue in determining workplace safety. Moreover, although the temperature of the office is set within the specified range, some areas may be above or below the recommended temperature. For example, if someone sits directly under an air conditioning vent, then they may be in a draught and therefore much cooler than need be. At the other end of the scale, a workstation positioned in direct sunlight will be much warmer than the surrounding environment.

Also, gender maybe a factor. Since men tend to be more muscular than women, they tend to run warmer. Their clothing adds to it too. Men often dress for work in suits and pants and sweaters that allow only their face and necks to be exposed, whereas women’s clothing tends to expose more skin, especially in summer.

There are also many other factors directly related to how temperature is measured (see CCOHS website), physical demands of your job or working outside.

The point is, even if the law says that the temperature should never be below 18°C, employers might need to find middle ground to ensure employees are comfortable.

While legislation and regulation will only give employers absolutes, they won’t likely give you comfort ranges. The Canadian Standard Association offers these standards for comfortable workplaces:

  • Summer conditions (light clothing) — if the relative humidity is 30 percent, the acceptable temperature range is 24.5–28°C
  • Summer conditions (light clothing) — if the relative humidity is 60 percent, 23–25.5°C is acceptable
  • Winter conditions (warm clothing) — if the relative humidity is 30 percent, the acceptable range is 20.5–25.5°C
  • Winter conditions (warm clothing) — if the relative humidity is 60 percent, the acceptable range is 20–24°C

When the subject was brought up at my Joint health and safety committee certification part 1 and 2, we were told that the best way to resolve the issue is to poll all employees on the above summer and winter temperatures. If the majority of the people are comfortable with a set temperature (summer and winter), you set the temperature at that, lock the gauge and communicate the thermal environment agreement (policy) to all employees.

Notwithstanding this advice, you should also perform a risk assessment in your workplace to identify where thermal hazards exist and see what controls can be put in place to alleviate any issues. For example, insulating or shielding sources of cold or heat in the workplace; insulating roofs and walls; reducing heat gain from windows with a reflective film or blinds, or reducing window area; moving desks and workstations away from windows or air vents; etc.

Yosie Saint-Cyr
First Reference Inc. Human Resources and Compliance Managing Editor

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Yosie Saint-Cyr, LL.B. Managing Editor

Managing Editor at First Reference Inc.
Yosie Saint-Cyr, LL.B., is a trained lawyer called to the Quebec bar in 1988 and is still a member in good standing. She practiced business, employment and labour law until 1999. For over 18 years, Yosie has been the Managing Editor of the following publications, Human Resources Advisor, Human Resources PolicyPro, HRinfodesk and Accessibility Standards PolicyPro from First Reference. Yosie is one of Canada’s best known and most respected HR authors, with an extensive background in employment and labour across the country. Read more
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One thought on “Heated arguments: Temperature wars in the office
  • Tina Asselin says:

    There is an old adage that says you can’t please all te people all the time. With regards to office temperature – this is extremely true. Our office is set to maintain an average temperature of 72 F. All of our offices have windows, so are affected by sunlight. In offices where the complaint is warmth – the blinds are always open……..go figure.