A Legal Minimum Working Temperature
This summer, as the mercury climbed to a record 40.3°C, we discussed the lack of a legal maximum working temperature. Now, as the winter draws in and the mornings are frosty, we turn to the opposite end of the thermometer.
The legal minimum
As with hot weather, in the UK there is no specific statutory minimum working temperature below which employees are entitled to withhold their labour without being in breach of contract. As discussed in our previous article, there is an implied term in every employment contract and a statutory obligation that the employer must do everything reasonably practicable to provide a safe and healthy workplace.
In addition, there is a specific statutory duty on the employer that “During working hours, the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be reasonable” (Regulation 7, Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992).
In contrast to the lack of guidance on a maximum temperature, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), does provide specific figures for guidance on a minimum working temperature. For most work, the minimum working temperature should normally be at least 16°C. If the work involves ‘rigorous physical effort’, the temperature should be at least 13°C.
It is important to note that other factors will be relevant in addition to the room temperature, including air movement, relative humidity and worker clothing.
The implied contractual term and statutory obligations can be enforced in the normal way, by bringing a claim against the employer for breach of contract and/or unlawful conduct in the Employment Tribunal or civil courts.
The specific temperatures from the guidance are contained in the HSE’s Approved Code of Practice (‘ACP’) to the Regulations. Although the ACP is not directly enforceable, an employee would be able to bring a claim for breach of the statutory regulation (Regulation 7) and point to the employer failing to meet the ACP guidance as evidence of the breach.
The employer will need to show that it has complied with the law in some other way, for example that the type of workplace required a temperature below the minimum, if say food refrigeration is necessary. Another defence could be that it was not practicable for the employer to maintain the minimum working temperature, although this would need to be clearly evidenced. The court or Employment Tribunal would then decide if a breach has occurred on the facts.
What to do if the temperature in your workplace is too low
It will of course be clear to employees when a workplace is cold. However, to evidence this, employers must provide “a sufficient number of thermometers […] to enable persons at work to determine the temperature in any workplace inside a building” (Regulation 7, Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992). This is a statutory duty that must be abided by, so if your employer has not already provided a thermometer, you can ask for one.
If you see that the recorded temperature is falling below the minimum, you should first ask your employer to adjust the temperature using any climate control system in the building. If the temperature remains too low, the ACP states that “if a reasonably comfortable temperature cannot be achieved throughout a workroom, local heating or cooling (as appropriate) should be provided”. For some workplaces, adding additional insulation to the building could be an option to resolve the problem long term.
If the room temperature is making you ill, then the employer will likely be in breach of their obligations to provide a safe working environment. They might additionally be liable to a personal injury claim. You should seek legal advice if your workplace is making you sick.
How this works in reality when people are working at home in the midst of an energy crisis is another thing. Your employer cannot be expected to take responsibility for your home working environment. Some employers have paid employees ‘cost of living’ payments to assist them with rising prices over the winter months.