Working in cold temperatures here in the UK is inevitable during the winter months. Some workers are also employed in environments with very cold ambient temperatures such as food storage facilities. But just how cold can it get before it is legally too cold to work?
The law on UK workplace temperatures is straightforward, but frustratingly vague.
Working in Cold Temperatures – The Legal Minimums
So what does the the law say about working in cold temperatures?
Frustratingly for many workers, there are no specific laws which give an upper or lower limit at which a workplace may not operate. The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 put an obligation under law for employers to maintain a “reasonable” temperature in the workplace.
Recommended workplace temperatures are laid out within HSE guidelines under the approved code of practise. This is set at 13 to 16 degrees depending on the type of work being carried out. Not every role will fall within those temperature ranges. For example, workers performing roles outdoors and cold store workers.
Minimum Working Temperatures in Different Work Environments
The HSE gives broad advice for different work environments. We take a look at how the guidelines can be applied to help understand what steps must be taken in different environments.
Employees can’t simply leave work because the temperature falls below the minimum stated in the guidelines.
The HSE also says that:-
These temperatures are not absolute legal requirements; the employer has a duty to determine what reasonable comfort will be in the particular circumstances.HSE temperature guidelines
Despite the vague nature of the guidelines on minimum working temperatures in the UK, employers can’t just declare the workplace is a “reasonable temperature”.
They still have a duty of care for employee health and safety. Risk assessments should be conducted to determine if extremes of temperature pose a risk to health and wellbeing at work. In some scenarios, there may be a heightened accident risk. This must be mitigated.
There are also basic staff welfare facilities that must be supplied within the workplace. If this is not possible, then it may not be safe for employees to work.
Minimum Working Temperatures in Offices
Ideally, work environments such as offices should be kept at a minimum temperature of 16℃.
This is considered a comfortable enough temperature to work in comfortably. Anything below 16℃ should raise questions about the impact on the staff working conditions.
Also, if it becomes so cold that pipes freeze, it is likely to be inappropriate for staff to be there. There should be access to handwashing facilities at all times and loos. Drinking water will also be affected by frozen pipes and staff should not be asked to stay.
However, it would not be a good idea to walk out of work in a situation like this if your management were reluctant to close the office. It could result in disciplinary proceedings. It would be better to raise the matter as a formal grievance and follow workplace procedures, or discuss the matter with your union if you have one.
Minimum Working Temperatures in Warehouses
Warehouses should also strive for a minimum of 16℃ unless the job is physical.
HSE states that in a warehouse, where the job is physical, the minimum temperature shouldn’t drop below 13℃. The nature of each warehouse environment can differ quite significantly.
The government guidelines take this into account, meaning there is some room for interpretation.
Minimum Temperatures for Outdoor Work
It won’t come as a surprise to learn that when it comes to outdoor work, there is no minimum temperature.
Outdoor work can be extremely taxing on the body in extreme heat and cold weather. When the temperature hits lows, your employer should do all they can to make things comfortable. This could mean providing staff with warm clothing, pencilling in regular tea breaks and allowing frequent breaks inside where possible.
The Personal Protective Equipment Regulations 1992 say that if there’s a risk to health or safety all contracted employees should be given suitable personal protective equipment free of charge. This includes warm clothing to ensure worker safety in cold outdoor temperatures.
In April 2022, the rules were extended to cover workers engaged in casual working arrangements.
Can You Refuse to Work if It’s Too Cold?
Your employer should be aware of any uncomfortable working conditions. They should make any reasonable adjustments to maintain their duty of care responsibilities.
In the event of frozen pipes and no running water, it may be necessary for staff to go home. However, you should never walk out of work if you feel it is too cold to work and your employer disagrees.
Raise a formal grievance, and try to follow official procedures. You could also consider contacting HSE to report unsafe working conditions if you feel there is a risk to employee health and safety. They will be able to advise if action should be taken.
Legal Minimum Temperatures for School Closures
The only workplace that does have a legal requirement to keep the building to a certain temperature are schools.
The legal minimum temperature for schools is set by the Education School Premises Regulations, 1999. It states that classrooms should have the ability to reach 18℃ whenever they are in use. The headteacher should also be risk assessing how safe the school grounds are for the school community.
Juggling childcare can be brutal at the best of times as a working parent. When there is a last minute school closure due to bad weather, it can make things difficult. So, it’s important to know your rights as an employee if your child’s school has to close.
In the event, your local school closes and you have no childcare options then you need to ring your employer. They will grant you leave, sometimes called dependent leave.
This may be paid but it isn’t always. If you are unsure where you stand then have a read of your contract. You must let your boss know in the same way you would report an absence.
Working in Cold Temperatures & Employer’s Duty of Care
Health and safety are paramount and always at the forefront of the employer’s duty of care responsibilities.
This includes preparing for those days when it is very cold at work. Everyone has the right to be comfortable at work. It can be tricky to achieve this when it is freezing but there are some steps your boss can take.
There are also workplace health and safety rules about monitoring temperatures, and steps that must be taken to keep workers safe in low temperatures.
- Making sure the building is kept as warm as possible, ideally 16℃ for inactive job roles.
- Ensuring there is fresh running water.
- Allowing extra breaks for warm drinks.
- Providing suitable warm clothing such as hoodies or coats. (PPE)
- Providing insulated hats and gloves when working outdoors.
- Checking in on staff regularly to ensure their well being.
- Keeping an eye on the weather for worsening conditions.
According to the Approved Code of Practice, it is reasonable to keep indoor temperatures no lower than 16℃. This can be lowered to 13℃ if the work you do is physical. However, these temperatures are not legal requirements. It is the employer’s role to determine if a workplace temperature is reasonable.
The minimum working temperature should not fall below 13℃ in a factory environment. These jobs tend to be quite active which allows for this drop in the minimum recommended temperature. However, this temperature is lot legally enforceable. The employer must decide if the temperature in the working environment is reasonable and take steps to ensure it is safe.