Your workplace might be too cold for you, but just fine for another employee. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration doesn’t mandate thermostat settings for the workplace because it recognizes that employees have different tolerances and preferences for temperature. But the agency does see that employers change thermostat settings when temperature extremes cause health problems for workers.
OSHA recommends a temperature range of 68 to 76 degrees Fahrenheit for the workplace. The agency considers this temperature range comfortable for most office workers. But OSHA cites employers when extreme temperatures – hot or cold -- become health-threatening. If workers complain about temperature settings, agency officials visit their work sites to test the environment. If OSHA determines that your workplace is too hot or too cold, it can require your employer to install fans or turn up the thermostat.
OSHA regulations kick in when temperatures fall into the “cold stress” category. Cold stress is a group of disorders caused by prolonged exposure to freezing and above-freezing temperatures. Power-line repairers, police officers, firefighters and others who work outdoors in extreme weather conditions are at risk for cold-stress. But workers in offices without sufficient heat or ventilation also are susceptible. Temperatures don't have to be below freezing to be health-threatening; a temperature drop below normal can cause body heat loss.
One form of cold stress, hypothermia, occurs when the body is exposed to cold air and begins losing heat faster than it can produce it. An abnormally low body temperature impedes movement and mental clarity. Body temperature below 95 degrees requires emergency treatment. Symptoms are shivering, drowsiness, slurred speech, exhaustion and memory loss. Freezing temperatures commonly cause hypothermia, but temperatures of 40 degrees or more can trigger the disorder.
Office temperatures are seldom cold enough to cause frostbite, a physically damaging cold-stress disorder. But people with poor circulation or who don't dress warmly enough for cold weather are at risk. Frostbite victims lose feeling and normal skin color in the affected areas, which commonly are the fingers, toes, nose, ears, chin and cheeks. Frostbite can cause permanent damage.
Chilblains is a cold-stress disorder that occurs when skin is repeatedly exposed to temperatures that range from just above freezing to as high as 60 degrees. Exposure permanently damages the small blood vessels, or capillaries, in the skin. Symptoms are itching and redness, and usually affect toes, fingers, cheeks and ears.
To cope with cool office temperatures, OSHA recommends dressing in warm, layered clothing, taking frequent breaks in warm work areas, drinking warm beverages, and eating pasta and other high-calorie foods at lunchtime. OSHA also recommends avoiding fatigue to conserve the energy needed to stay warm.
Warming up a chilly office might simply require a talk with your supervisor or human resource manager. But if temperatures are unbearably cold and put workers at risk for cold stress, filing a complaint with OSHA might be necessary.
- Society for Human Resource Management: OSHA Standards: Are We Required to Keep the Workplace a Certain Temperature?
- Centers for Disease Control: Winter Weather: Hypothermia
- Centers for Disease Control: Winter Weather: Frostbite
- U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration: Occupational Heat Exposure
- Centers for Disease Control: Cold Stress
Valerie Bolden-Barrett is a writer, editor and communication consultant specializing in best business practices, public policy, personal finance and career development. She is a former senior editor of national business publications covering management and finance, employment law, human resources, career development, and workplace issues and trends.