Under The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, employers need to ensure that indoor temperatures in the workplace are reasonable. Employers must also ensure that the air is clean and fresh and that there is adequate ventilation.
That being said, there are no specific legal minimum or maximum working temperatures. This means that there is no set temperature at which it is too cold or too hot to work, either inside or outside.
The Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) Approved Code of Conduct (the Code) recommends a minimum indoor temperature of 16ºC for sedentary work (eg desk work or retail) or 13ºC for anyone doing rigorous physical work (eg working in a warehouse). There is currently no maximum temperature recommendation.
This means that, in the UK, there is no temperature at which it is considered too hot to work and, consequently, no temperature at which staff can leave work because of heat. However, all staff members are entitled to work somewhere their health and safety is ensured. As heat is a hazard, employers must take (excessive) heat into account when assessing workplace risks.
What is a reasonable temperature at work?
While employers should generally comply with the Code’s minimum temperatures, they have to decide what is considered a reasonable workplace temperature. This will need to be assessed based on the working environment and type of work involved. For example, a bakery, an office, and a cold storage warehouse could each reasonably be expected to have different temperatures.
assess the workplace risks associated with certain temperatures, including the risks of extreme temperatures (eg extreme snow or heat waves)
put in place adequate controls (including temporary or seasonal ones) to reduce any risks posed
How can an employer determine whether their workplace is too hot or cold?
Employers should ensure the thermal comfort of their workforce. This means considering the factors that determine a comfortable workplace temperature.
As part of their workplace risk assessments, carried out to determine whether a workplace is safe to work in, employers need to consider:
air temperature – this is the temperature surrounding the body
radiant temperature – this is the heat that radiates from a warm object (eg machinery, molten metal or the sun)
air velocity – this is the speed of air moving across workers. This may help cool them if the air is cooler than the environment and can help move stagnant air
humidity – high humidity (80%+ humidity) prevents staff from sweating as much and, therefore, prevents heat reduction. This is especially important where staff wear non-breathable, vapour-impermeable personal protective equipment (PPE)
what clothing staff wear – wearing too much clothing or PPE can cause heat stress (even if the environment isn’t too hot). Wearing clothing that isn’t warm enough can result in cold injuries or conditions (eg frostbite or hypothermia)
the average rate at which staff work – the more physical work is, the hotter workers get and the more heat needs to be lost to ensure they don’t overheat.
heat sensitivity - a worker’s age, sex, fitness level, size and weight all contribute to how heat-sensitive someone is
For more information on these factors, see HSE’s guidance on factors indicating thermal comfort.
Thermal comfort checklist
To help employers determine whether staff are experiencing thermal discomfort, the HSE has created a thermal comfort checklist.
Workers may be at risk of thermal discomfort if they select ‘yes’ for at least 2 of the options on the checklist. If this occurs, an employer should carry out a detailed workplace risk assessment to determine whether the circumstances are suitable for work, bearing in mind the specific environment worked in. For example:
for workers working outside – employers are responsible for introducing rest breaks, providing drinking water and encouraging workers to hydrate regularly
for workers who typically wear warmer business clothes – employers may consider adopting a more casual dress code to help them handle heat better
What steps can employers take to ensure reasonable workplace temperatures?
Even before undertaking a new risk assessment or asking staff to complete a thermal comfort checklist, employers should always listen to their staff members’ concerns. Anyone who is suffering thermal discomfort in the workplace should speak to their manager and/or the HR department or representative. If staff are struggling, employers should consider what steps they can take to make the situation bearable.
Examples of measures employers can put in place to help cool down the workplace and staff members include:
providing air conditioning or fans
allowing workers to adjust thermostat settings or open windows
installing blinds on windows
moving workstations away from sunny or overly hot areas
insulating any exposed pipes that become hot
rotating workers and workstations if some staff members have to handle uncomfortable temperatures for extended periods
ensuring staff are not wearing more PPE or uniform than necessary
encouraging staff to drink water frequently and providing easy access to cold water (eg in the form of a water cooler)
Examples of measures employers can put in place to help warm up the workplace and staff members include:
providing workplace heating (eg portable heaters) to ensure workplaces are warm when occupied
providing insulating floor coverings or special footwear to staff who have to stand on cold floors for extended periods
reducing draughts while ensuring adequate ventilation
providing appropriate protective clothing for cold environments
minimising exposure to cold areas and cold products
Practical solutions that can help in situations of extreme heat or cold include:
allowing staff to work from home (where possible). It is a good idea to adopt a Working from home policy to plan ahead for such circumstances
allowing flexible working hours (eg allowing staff to start work earlier or later to avoid commuting during particularly hot periods)
allowing frequent rest breaks for staff members to get hot or cold drinks or to warm up or cool down
relaxing formal dress codes (but ensuring PPE is worn where needed)
For more information, see HSE’s guidance on controlling thermal comfort.
Weather-related considerations for employers
There are various other things employers should consider and bear in mind when it comes to extreme weather, in relation to workplace temperatures as well as how such weather may otherwise affect their workforce.
Do employers have to pay staff members who do not turn up to work or who turn up late due to the weather?
The starting point for answering this question is the employer’s Staff handbook and employees’ Employment contracts. If both documents are silent on this matter, then an employer does not typically have a legal obligation to pay a staff member for time that they cannot be or are not at work due to the weather (eg due to a snowstorm making it difficult to come to work).
However, if the staff handbook or employment contract sets out that payment will be provided to staff members who are late for work or who do not attend due to the weather, then these provisions must be complied with. Non-compliance would be a breach of contract and/or amount to an unlawful deduction of wages and the staff member would be entitled to bring a legal claim.
Employers should also consider whether paying a staff member for time out of work due to the weather has become an implied term of their contract of employment through custom and practice. For example, if a staff member with 20 years of service has been off work or late for work due to weather multiple times during these 20 years, and the employer has always paid them, to suddenly decide to stop doing so now would be tricky. This is still the case even if the employee handbook or the contract of employment has always said that staff members will not be paid for time off due to the weather. In these circumstances, employers should Ask a lawyer for advice on their situation.
For more information, read Managing employee absenteeism.
What about a staff member who could get to work, but who needs time off to look after their child because their school is closed?
Certain staff members (ie those classed as employees) are entitled by law to time off for dependants. This means that, if the employee’s child’s school closes, the employee may be entitled to unpaid time off to make alternative childcare arrangements. Employees are entitled to reasonable time off. What is reasonable will depend on the specifics of their situation.
It is a good idea to make a Time off for dependants policy to plan ahead for such circumstances.
Can employers make staff take annual leave?
While employers can tell staff members when to take annual leave, they must give them at least twice as much notice as the amount of time they require them to take as annual leave. So if, for example, an employer knows that it will snow on Wednesday, they should let their staff members know first thing on Monday that they are required to take Wednesday off as annual leave.
In reality, it is virtually impossible to say for sure whether severe weather will arrive and cause enough chaos that staff will need to stay at home. As a result, having staff members take annual leave is not usually an option as giving enough notice will not always be possible.
Remember to be fair across the board
If multiple staff members do not show up for work or show up late because of the weather, they should both be dealt with in the same manner. Treating them differently (eg paying one and not the other) for any reason would not be good practice and, depending on the circumstances, may amount to discrimination.
That being said, employers should remember the duty to make reasonable adjustments. For example, it may not be a good idea to insist that a staff member who suffers from arthritis or brittle bones make their way to work when the surfaces are icy. In those circumstances, it may be advisable to allow relevant staff members to work from home.
For more information on workplace health and safety, read our guide on Health and safety. For more detailed information on temperature in the workplace, including considerations when working outside, see the HSE’s guidance. If you have any questions or concerns, do not hesitate to Ask a lawyer.