Are your employees getting a frosty reception?

Home Insights Are your employees getting a frosty reception?

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Contributed by: Kylie Dunn and Laura Cole

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Published on: July 09, 2019

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As winter starts to bite, it is worth considering your employment obligations regarding the temperature of your workplace. Prolonged exposure to icy conditions can lead to decreased productivity and health and safety concerns (both physically and mentally). Is your workplace too cold? If so, can adequate measures be put in place to avoid thermal discomfort?

Regulating temperature in the workplace can be a controversial issue. Individuals have their own personal preferences and temperature can be difficult to regulate due to the many variables including relative humidity, air movement, the physicality of the work undertaken, clothing worn, exposure to heat sources and so on. 

In New Zealand, there are no specific statutory or regulatory limits on the acceptable temperature range for a workplace. However, employers are obligated to provide a safe and healthy working environment. This includes ensuring that the temperature in the workplace does not cause harm. Of course, there are plenty of employees who work in extreme temperature conditions (both hot and cold) every day. This is not unlawful, as long as sufficient protective equipment is provided and used.  Extreme temperatures should be treated like any other hazard or risk in the workplace. 

The Health and Safety at Work (General Risk and Workplace Management) Regulations provide that a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) must ensure, so far as is reasonably 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 or cold are able to do so without risks to health and safety.

WorkSafe has provided some guidance on this issue. WorkSafe suggests that the air temperature should be 19-24 degrees Celsius during summertime and 18-22 degrees Celsius in winter for those in sedentary occupations, and 16-21 degrees Celsius in summertime and 16-19 degrees in wintertime for those in active occupations.

There are few reported cases on this issue. In 2010 in the case of Manson v Tom Ryan Cartage Limited, the Authority held that Mr Manson suffered an unjustified disadvantage because his employer failed to provide a safe workplace. Mr Manson was employed as a mechanic in Christchurch. In winter, he was hospitalised for pneumonia, which the Authority found was partly caused by the conditions of the workshop, which was unreasonably cold and not adequately heated. Mr Manson was awarded $4,000 compensation for the unsatisfactory temperature in the workplace.  

This case was decided in 2010. Since then there have been two significant developments in the law that may affect the level of penalty imposed today. The first is the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, which considerably increased the level of fines and penalties for breaches. The second is that compensatory awards in the employment jurisdiction have been trending upwards in recent years. 

Employers can comply with their health and safety obligations by ensuring the workplace is comfortable and within (or close to) WorkSafe's suggested range. Where this is not possible, the risk of harm should be dealt with through equipment or other controls. 

Please feel free to contact a member of our Employment Law Team for advice on matters such as this.

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