Hot Stuff: Workplace Temperatures and Employee Rights

BY: ON MONDAY, AUGUST 25, 2014

Summer’s here, and for many people that means rising temperatures in the workplace. For some, though, air conditioning can make offices a little too cold for comfort – especially when the person controlling it is a little too eager with that thermostat. It’s hard to please everyone – but do workers have any legal rights when it comes to workplace temperatures?

First things first: There’s no legal maximum or minimum temperature for workplaces in the United States. Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations do recommend, however, that employers maintain workplace temperatures in the range of 68 to 76 degrees Fahrenheit, with humidity control in the range of 20 to 60 percent. This is only a guideline, though, and if you’re working in an office with a temperature reading lower than 68 or higher than 76 degrees, your employer isn’t breaking the law. According to a statement from OHSA released in 2003 in response to consumer inquiries:

“Office temperature and humidity conditions are generally a matter of human comfort rather than hazards that could cause death or serious physical harm.”

Because of this, temperatures in offices and workplaces, while expected to be reasonable for individuals wearing normal work clothing, do not fall under OSHA’s regulations. If your workplace is at an uncomfortable temperature, you should first talk to your employer about how to make the space more comfortable.

Despite a lack of official regulation on the maximum and minimum temperatures in the workplace, employers are still required to ensure working conditions don’t become dangerous. The Department of Labor has already produced guidance on Occupational Heat Exposure, noting that:

“Every year, thousands of workers become sick from occupational heat exposure, and some even die. […]Operations involving high air temperatures, radiant heat sources, high humidity, direct physical contact with hot objects, or strenuous physical activities have a high potential for causing heat-related illness. Workplaces with these conditions may include iron and steel foundries, nonferrous foundries, brick-firing and ceramic plants, glass products facilities, rubber products factories, electrical utilities (particularly boiler rooms), bakeries, confectioneries, commercial kitchens, laundries, food canneries, chemical plants, mining sites, smelters, and steam tunnels.

Outdoor operations conducted in hot weather and direct sun, such as farm work, construction, oil and gas well operations, asbestos removal, landscaping, emergency response operations, and hazardous waste site activities, also increase the risk of heat-related illness in exposed workers.”

Employers have a legal responsibility to ensure their workers are in an environment free from known dangers. Additionally, U.S. courts have interpreted OSHA’s general duty clause ("Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees”) to mean that employers are legally required to provide a workplace that meets industry-recognized standards for heat and heat-related hazards. If you’re working in an office or any other workplace where you’re exposed to dangerously hot or cold temperatures, either through the general air temperature or while carrying out specific tasks, it’s important to assert your rights. Employers may need to supply special safety equipment, regular breaks or safety and medical training to help ensure their workers are kept safe.

At the end of the day, a reasonable employer should care about their workers’ welfare and happiness. There’s no need to freeze or boil while you work. As for the summer – well, enjoy it while it lasts.

Image via Shutterstock

About the Author

Glenn Phillips
Glenn Phillips owns and operates Phillips Law Firm in Washington.  With almost 30 years of experience, Mr. Phillips specializes in the litigation of personal injury, product liability, disability, employee rights, and defective drug/device cases.
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