As the East coast of Australia goes through another heat wave it’s time to address office air conditioning management.
I think we can all agree it’s way too hot. And if you work outside, then it’s more probable that you are a man doing a job that involves hard labour, and you have my heartfelt sympathy.
But for those of us indoors, and here my point is particularly addressed to women office workers, I have some bad news. The air conditioning is sexist.
In 2015 research from the Netherlands made headlines, it showed air conditioning was biased in favour of men. It is nearly always set for male comfort rather than for women, who tend to prefer a warmer environment (about 25 degrees C, three degrees warmer than men).
Take this story from the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper, about a woman who used to get so cold at work that she had to go to the bathroom several times a day to immerse her fingers in warm water so that she could keep typing. Every time she turned up the thermostat, her boss would turn it back down.
“Our offices were controlled by the same thermostat, and he was always hot while I was always cold,” she recalls. “We literally argued about it every single day.”
So what is the science behind men and women’s tolerance of temperature?
For a start, men typically have more heat generating muscle than women and so feel comfortable at cooler temperatures. Women typically have more body fat than men and though the fat helps to retain heat, it isn’t so effective at generating heat, unlike muscle.
Meanwhile current air conditioning standards are derived from research conducted in the 1960s based on the resting metabolic rate of one 11 stone, 40-year-old man.
Dr Boris Kingma, lead researcher from the Maastricht University Medical Centre in the Netherlands told the UK’s Telegraph newspaper: “The main message is that in the current standards the value for the heat load of a building is based on an average male. This overestimates the metabolic rate of women on average by 20 to 30 per cent.
“We do not recommend a specific range of room temperatures, instead we point out how metabolic rate differs between males and females, and how important it could be to take this into account when defining indoor climate standards.”
The researchers also noted how metabolic rate lowers with increasing age which means that an older workforce is likely to need higher office temperatures.
There are other variations to consider, too, such as how pregnancy and hormonal contraceptives will increase women’s core temperatures by about 0.5°C to 1.0°C – and how women going through the menopause will commonly experience ‘hot flushes’.
What does HR need to be aware of?
Complaints about air-conditioning and heating in offices (and other workplaces) are very common – it is too hot or too cold; the temperature varies drastically through the day; the draughts are terrible; etc. It’s not only the temperature that affects how people feel, but also the humidity levels and air movement. Workplace temperatures that are too high or too low can affect fatigue, heat illness and cold-related medical conditions.
There are no regulations specifying standards for minimum temperatures, humidity or air-flow in the workplace, however, both the employer and HR (whose role it is to oversee workplace health and safety), have a duty of care under the Work Health and Safety Act, 2011 to provide a working environment that is safe and without risks to health – and therefore should be doing something about unsatisfactory air-conditioning or heating.
The employer also has the duty to monitor conditions at the workplace – this includes temperature.
Generally, the temperature in offices should vary according to the outside temperature, and should be changed month by month. Mostly, it should range from about 21 to 26 degrees, with an airflow rate of 0.1 metres per second. The humidity level is best between 60 and 40 per cent. Adjustments should then be made from that point, checking that the air conditioning reaches all areas in the office, and that windows receiving substantial quantities of sunlight are not causing problems.
Heat hazardous workplaces
Working in hot and/or humid environments can be particularly uncomfortable, but more worrying are the risks of heat-related illness, which can be fatal.
- wearing high levels of personal protective equipment
- heat from extremely hot or molten material (e.g. foundries, steel mills, bakeries, smelters, glass factories, and furnaces)
- sunshine (e.g. outdoor work such as construction, road repair, open-pit mining and agriculture)
- high humidity (e.g. laundries, restaurant kitchens, and canneries)
- internal body heat (e.g. from heavy manual work).
Step by step guide to preventing heat-related illness
The first step for an HR officer is to identify the sources of heat and cold by looking at the work environment, and the work processes and practices.
The model Code of Practice: Managing the Work Environment and Facilities offers guidance on the risks and how they can be controlled.
In times of really hot weather it states that the pace of work should be slowed if possible, cool drinking water should be supplied, a cool, well-ventilated place where workers can take rest breaks should be provided, and suitable clothing should be worn. For outdoor workers, this would ideally include the use of block-out, hats, UV-glasses, long sleeves and long pants.
While all this seems like common sense, enforcing it is often a problem. Therefore, workers need to be trained to recognise troubling symptoms caused by extreme temperatures, and environmental conditions should be monitored. Immediate assistance should be provided to workers experiencing symptoms of heat strain or hypothermia.