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When the heat affects your work: safety in the workplace when summer peaks

30 November 2018 - By Craig Stephen

If this summer is anything like last year’s, then offices and other indoor venues could again turn into ovens.

NIWA says the nationwide average temperature for the 2017-18 summer was 18.8 degrees, 0.3 degrees above the previous record set in the hot months of 1934-35.

So when is it too hot to work in the office or in court?

A yellow desk fan

As a comparison, this year’s unusually high temperatures in Europe led the UK’s Trades Union Congress (TUC) to call for a maximum workplace temperature of 30 degrees for non-manual work, and 27 degrees for manual work.

“If people get too hot, they risk dizziness, fainting, or even heat cramps. In very hot conditions the body’s blood temperature rises,” the TUC warned.

While sunburn won’t affect those mainly working indoors, dehydration and overheating are real dangers.

First Union, which represents mostly white collar workers, points to WorkSafe’s recommendations on maximum temperatures.

“WorkSafe recommends air-con units be set between 19-24 degrees in the summer and 18-22 degrees in the winter but it’s important to point out each individual person is different, and so often a consensus needs to be reached, especially in big offices as older people and people with certain conditions do feel the cold, or heat, more than others,” says divisional secretary Jared Abbott.

Regulations come in the shape of the Health and Safety at Work (General Risk and Workplace Management) Regulations 2016 (HSWR) which came into force on 4 April 2016.

Regulation 10 provides that a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) must ensure, so far as is reasonable practicable, that:

  • there is suitable and sufficient ventilation to enable workers to carry out work without risks to health and safety; and
  • workers carrying out work in extremes of heat and cold are able to do so without risks to health and safety.

“Where a PCBU has a duty under regulation 10, the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (HSWA) requires it to identify the likelihood and degree of harm arising from working in extremes of heat and cold and to put in place suitable control measures to manage the risks – such as air conditioning,” says Mike Mercer, a solicitor at Simpson Grierson.

Backward step, says CTU

The Council of Trade Unions, however, warns that changes introduced in the HSWA have resulted in a backward step.

“The Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 specified facilities must be suitable with regards to factors like humidity, lighting, temperature, ventilation and wind that an employer needed to maintain, considering the kind of work that people were doing,” says CTU President Richard Wagstaff.

“However, the newer law simply says businesses have to provide facilities for ‘suitable and sufficient’ ventilation and lighting for ‘workers carrying out work in extremes of heat or cold’ – which is a much narrower set of applicable circumstances and harder in practice to enforce, through health and safety regulations rather than addressing comfort and workplace suitability. This should be addressed by the Government when the Act and Regulations are reviewed in 2020.”

Vigilance over temperature control

One ERA case highlights the need for employers to be vigilant over temperature control.

In Manson v Tom Ryan Cartage Ltd [2010] NZERA 32 (26 January 2010), Mr Manson was admitted to hospital with pneumonia. After his return to work, he was dismissed. He raised personal grievances for unjustified dismissal and for unjustified disadvantage on the basis that the employer had failed to provide adequate heating in the workshop, causing his bout of ill health.

The Employment Relations Authority accepted Mr Manson’s disadvantage claim, observing at [38] that “every employer has an obligation to provide a working environment which is reasonably free of obvious health and safety deficits and a large unlined hangar type vehicle workshop without adequate heating operated by a sole charge mechanic in the depths of a Christchurch winter does not meet the employer’s obligation in this regard”.

Solutions to over-heating include:

Air conditioning: However, WorkSafe notes that “Sometimes air conditioning units do not supply enough fresh air to an area which can cause sick building type problems. If not maintained properly, they can harbour fungi or bacteria that can affect the health of employees”.

Ventilation: “A good ventilation system can remove hot air from a building. It is also good for removing any contaminants from the air,” adds WorkSafe.

Fans placed on desks are a quick-fix to alleviating over-heating.

And on a personal level, it’s important to state the obvious, that when it gets too hot, it is vital to drink water, or drinks with a high salt and electrolyte concentrate.

And what if it’s too bright?

First Union also warns of the impact of poor lighting on staff.

“Lighting, like temperature, can cause workers a lot of discomfort if it’s not quite right; they may seem like small issues but can build up over the day,” says Jared Abbott.

“There’s been some interesting research on lighting in the last five years; it can affect mood and productivity so it’s important to get it right. If employers are concerned about lighting levels, they can hire a lux meter, or get a rough gauge from some smartphone apps as to whether the lighting might not be optimal. It’s also helpful to have different kinds of lighting available for different office tasks.”

Mr Abbott suggests that if staff are uncomfortable with temperature or lighting in their offices they have a discussion with their immediate colleagues first, and if they are unable to solve the issue, approach their HR department.

With thanks to Mike Mercer, a lawyer with Simpson Grierson in Wellington, for his assistance with parts of this article.

Last updated on the 30th November 2018