Temperatures are about to dip; icy gales are forecast, and February temperatures are expected to be below average for the time of year. Some workers are required to be outdoors, and others, such as those employed in cold stores, are exposed to the cold because of the type of work.
But if the size or layout of an indoor workplace is difficult to keep warm, how cold must it be before people have to be sent home?
The law doesn’t set a minimum temperature. Instead, the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations require ‘reasonable comfort’ in all indoor workplaces and temperatures of at least 16°C, or 13°C if the work requires physical effort.
Thermometers must be provided to measure this, but everyone’s perception of hot and cold is different. This individual ‘thermal comfort’ is affected by various other factors, not just the air temperature, as anyone sat in a draught will know.
When most workers are complaining, regardless of the temperature reading, an assessment of environmental and personal factors will help find ways of reducing heat loss and draughts. This can also determine the best way of heating the workplace to achieve reasonable comfort.
Consequences of being cold at work
Struggling against the cold makes us tense up, increasing the likelihood of injury. We also slow down, or speed up, to get out of the cold, affecting productivity and decision-making ability.
Repetitive work in cold conditions causes greater muscle fatigue and can lead to ‘overuse injuries’, which result from repetitive trauma. According to the Health and Safety Executive, workers are at particular risk of musculoskeletal symptoms when the ambient temperature is below 10°C.
If background heating is inadequate or ineffective it makes sense to address other factors to improve the working conditions.
How to Improve Thermal Comfort
Consult employees on what adversely affects their thermal comfort. The following tips can help reduce the risk of cold-related health conditions:
- Focus on reducing heat loss and draughts e.g. insulation and baffles
- Design the workplace to minimise exposure to cold areas and materials, such as cold metal parts, frozen foods and cold water
- Reduce draughts e.g. consider air curtains above constantly opening doors
- If employees need to stand for prolonged periods on cold floors, insulate them, provide duckboards or special footwear
- Provide appropriate workplace heating. In a warehouse, a warm air heater together with a low velocity impellor destratification fan will return warm air from the roof space back to the occupied space, evenly distributing heat and reducing fuel consumption.
- Radiant heaters (wall or ceiling mounted) are most appropriate in areas such as loading bays that open onto the outside. If portable heating is used, position it away from walkways and combustible items
- Limit time spent in cold areas that cannot be heated e.g. implement job rotation and provide sufficient breaks to warm up in heated areas.
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Written by Alexis Barrett Senior Health & Safety Consultant