15th November, 2022

Working In Cold Temperatures And The Law

Exposure to the cold can cause shivering, reduced alertness, feeling unwell and, eventually, hypothermia - which can be fatal. Employers have legal responsibilities to provide a safe and healthy workplace. Let's look at what the law says about working in the cold.

Working In Cold Temperatures And The Law header image

Winter has arrived and brings with it colder temperatures. Some of us might be excited for Christmas, but spare a thought for the people working outside or in poorly heated buildings.

Working on the roads, farms, and construction sites in winter can involve braving the elements in freezing temperatures. And it's not just people working outside who need to worry. Working in warehouses, factories, and even some offices in winter can also mean colder conditions.

Winter brings cold weather to many of us, but some people work in cold environments at other times of the year too.

We have previously written about the dangers of working in hot weather and heat stress. But what about the cold?

In this blog post, we'll cover:

The problem with working in cold conditions

If you've ever gone out in the cold weather without a coat or had your heating break in the middle of winter, you probably don't need reminding how uncomfortable and unpleasant feeling cold is.

footprint in the snow

Tucking your hands into your armpits, tensing your jaw, bracing your body against the cold wind as it sucks the warmth from your skin. It's not pleasant.

But the cold can be more than uncomfortable, especially for vulnerable people. According to the office for national statistics more people die in the winter than in the summer - being too cold can be deadly.

Exposure to the cold can lead to shivering, reduced alertness, feeling unwell, and eventually, hypothermia - which can be fatal if not treated quickly.

Struggling with the cold? Here are 7 health tips for surviving winter work.

It's not just your health that can be affected by the cold. When the temperature decreases, the risk of accidents increases. Of course, there are other factors at play here. Wet and icy weather can increase slips. Shorter days can mean working in the dark. But the cold certainly has an impact that can't be ignored.

Slip and trip accidents increase during the Autumn and Winter season for a number of reasons: there is less daylight, leaves fall onto paths and become wet and slippery and cold weather spells cause ice and snow to build up on paths.

When you're cold, you start to lose the ability to concentrate. Shivering and numbness in your hands and body can prevent you from carrying out your tasks with accuracy. You're probably also more likely to take shortcuts - just so you can finish up and get out of the cold!

The law when working in cold temperatures

Employers have legal responsibilities to provide a safe and healthy workplace. Let's look at what the law says when it comes to working in the cold.

7.—(1) During working hours, the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be reasonable.

Temperatures in the indoor workplace are covered by the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations. But it only covers temperatures inside buildings (so not much use for outdoor workers). And it only says the temperature must be 'reasonable'. What is a 'reasonable' temperature?

Luckily, we have the approved code of practice (ACoP), which tells us that this should be at least 16 degrees. Although in some circumstances, where intense effort is involved, it can be as low as 13 degrees.

  1. The temperature in a workplace should normally be at least 16 degrees Celsius. If work involves rigorous physical effort, the temperature should be at least 13 degrees Celsius...
  2. These temperature guidelines do not apply where it would be impractical to maintain those temperatures, for example in rooms which have to be open to the outside, or where food or other products have to be kept cold. In such cases, the temperature should be as close to those mentioned in paragraph 61 as is practical.

So the law says the temperature should be 13 degrees at a minimum? Right?

Not quite. These are just guidelines. The ACoP even states that these requirements don't apply where it is not practical to apply them.

But if you are working inside, you'd certainly be expected to be at these minimum temperatures - 16 degrees or 13 degrees for physically intensive work - unless you could show it's impractical to maintain those temperatures. For example, if you're working in a walk-in fridge or a loading bay open to the outside.

open loading bay

The approved code of practice is a legal document. While the minimum temperatures given are only guidelines, they give employers a benchmark as to what is reasonable, and what you should be looking to achieve in your workplace.

If your workplace is too cold, you need to be able to show that you are trying to keep your temperatures reasonable - or as close to reasonable as you can get.

But this just applies to work indoors. What about those that work outside? They are the people who are most at risk from the cold, surely?

The law when working outside in cold temperatures

The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations might only cover indoor workplaces, but that's not to say that no health and safety laws protect outdoor working temperatures. They do.

In many cases, there might not be a specific law, but if you sent workers to work outside in t-shirts in freezing conditions, you would certainly be breaking the law.

Employers have a legal duty to protect the health and safety of their employees.

(1)It shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees.

Some outdoor workplaces also have more specific legal requirements regarding cold temperatures, like in construction.

icy fence

Construction workers often find themselves out in the cold (so to speak). Much construction work is undertaken outside or in unfinished (and often unheated) buildings. The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations (CDM) apply to all construction work and includes a section dedicated to temperature and weather protection.

  1. Suitable and sufficient steps must be taken to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that during working hours the temperature at a construction site that is indoors is reasonable having regard to the purpose for which that place is used.
  2. Where necessary to ensure the health or safety of persons at work on a construction site that is outdoors, the construction site must, so far as is reasonably practicable, be arranged to provide protection from adverse weather, having regard to—
  1. the purpose for which the site is used; and
  2. any protective clothing or work equipment provided for the use of any person at work there.

So, indoor areas of the construction site should be at a reasonable temperature. We've already discussed the guidance that covers reasonable temperatures, and for a construction site with physically intensive activities, this would be at least 13 degrees (unless impractical).

The regulations also state that rest facilities must be maintained at an appropriate temperature. It makes sense that workers need somewhere to warm up so that they can take a break from the cold.

shovelling snow

If you work outside, but not in construction, you can also look further in the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations ACoP for guidance. The following applies if you're working indoors, but in a place without suitable heating.

  1. Suitable protective clothing and rest facilities should be provided in instances where local heating or cooling fails to give reasonable comfort. Where practical, there should be systems of work (eg task rotation) to ensure the amount of time individual workers are exposed to uncomfortable temperatures is limited.

This is good guidance if you're working outdoors too. After all, employers have legal health and safety responsibilities to their employees. Above all else, employers must ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees.

While the weather might be outside your control, heating, clothing, warm snacks, and other cold weather controls can improve your workers' thermal comfort (and health). Cold workers are unhappy and unproductive, so having your workers out in the cold isn't just bad for health - it's bad for business too.

If employers fail to protect their team from the cold, and the health problems and safety issues that come with it, this could be a breach of their legal responsibilities.

Warn your team about the dangers of cold work with the free cold environments toolbox talk. And find out more about the steps you can take with 7 health tips for surviving winter work.

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This article was written by Emma at HASpod. Emma has over 10 years experience in health and safety and BSc (Hons) Construction Management. She is NEBOSH qualified and Tech IOSH.

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