Office temperatures and Covid-19

28 May 2020

PCS recognises that the excessive heat in some of our offices will be more difficult to deal with this year because of the safety measures that have been taken to protect staff from Covid-19. 

Only air conditioning systems which exchange the air with fresh air can be used and those that just recirculate the air cannot be used and will not be switched on.  Likewise, fans cannot be used in sites as there is a danger they could help spread the virus on open plan floors further than the 2 metre bubble around individuals. Any members who have been using a fan as a reasonable adjustment should have had a discussion with their team leader about other safe measures to keep cool. There could be a range of solutions including working in a room on your own with the fan on.

As the weather gets hotter we expect the heat to lead to a lot of issues with excessive temperatures in offices and we want to highlight action that can be taken as quickly as possible to address the problems.  PCS has highlighted with management that the good preparation and planning especially on those sites which usually have problems in hot weather and those sites adversely impacted by the normal measures like air conditioning that cannot be used, can work on solutions in advance to help alleviate problems and ensure that issues are reported to the Helpdesk as soon as they arise.

Although there is no legal maximum temperature, managers are ultimately responsible for ensuring that staff work in a comfortable environment. Managers have a duty of care for your health, safety and welfare.

The HSE says that if a number of employees are complaining about thermal discomfort, your employer should carry out a risk assessment, and act on the results of that assessment.  This should be done in conjunction with your PCS Health and Safety Rep.  In DWP if more than one individual raises problems with site being too hot your site manager must contact the helpdesk (0870 606 0065) and raise an incident to establish what the problem is and how long it will take for the situation to be satisfactorily resolved.

The departmental guidance has a number of suggestions for managers to put in place to help relieve the problem.  These are:

  • Open as many doors and windows as possible, but never wedge open fire doors. It is important to open windows on both sides of the building where possible. This will allow cross-flow ventilation through the building. In windy conditions it is better to have all the windows open a little rather than a few open a lot.
  • Ensure blinds are closed properly on the sunny side of the building to reduce solar gain. Where possible close the blinds at the end of the day before, so that the sun has reduced impact the following day.
  • Allow staff frequent breaks to have drinks of cold water to combat the effects of dehydration.  It is best to drink small amounts frequently at regular intervals throughout the day. The DWP breaks policy is clear that going to the loo, taking medication and getting a drink are classed as short ad-hoc paid interruptions which additionally take place in normal working time and do not form part of your paid breaks.
  • If practical, move staff into rooms less affected by solar gain whilst still complying with 2m social distancing and cleaning of workstations.
  • Allow regular breaks in the open air
  • Extend lunch breaks allowing full flexi credit for any extension
  • Consider sending home any member of staff particularly at risk, e.g. those who are not in the best of health, allowing full flexi credit for absences
  • Consider a relaxation of the dress code standards.  The NHS recommends wearing light, loose fitting cotton clothes
  • Staff who work standard hours should not be expected to make up lost time when extended breaks or early departures are allowed.

As there is very reduced face to face contact with the public there should be no problem for all areas to have a relaxed dress code during hot weather. Raise the issue with your local PCS rep if there is a reluctance from managers to relax the dress code even when offices are excessively hot.

Impact on individuals' health and well-being

Members with the underlying health conditions listed in the NHS clinically vulnerable to Covid-19 list, all members over 70 and all pregnant women must not be in the workplace and should either be on special leave with pay or working from home. Members at home should be mindful of the guidance to try to keep cool at home. If you are still in the office with other underlying health conditions not in the Covid-19 clinically vulnerable list, you should discuss with your team leader about any additional reasonable adjustments to be put in place, if the heat exacerbates your condition. It is important that local management comply with the Equality Act 2010. Excessively warm conditions in the workplace can have a detrimental impact on members with pre-existing medical conditions and can also adversely impact members’ mental health wellbeing as well as the physical impact. All members are encouraged to raise issues as soon as possible whether they are covered by the Equality Act 2010 or not. There is a lot of information on looking after your well-being and mental health on the intranet including the stress at work policy that local PCS reps can support members navigating through these procedures. Some individuals are more susceptible to heat than others so make sure that you report any issues that you may have, so that solutions can be considered. For example, those members going through the menopause can also be detrimentally affected in warm working conditions. If issues cannot be resolved raise them with your local PCS reps who can raise locally and can also escalate them to PCS DWP Group office as a matter of urgency.

Sometimes more needs to be done

Sometimes even after all these measures have been taken it is still too hot and another solution may be required such as supplementary cooling or if there is a cooling system malfunction this has to be addressed. The supplementary cooling units exchange the air so are safe to use in the Covid-19 situation.

In dealing with overheating problems it is essential that site managers keep all occupants and the Trade Union Appointed Safety Representative fully informed of:

  • The cause once it has been established
  • The action taken. They should report details of the action being taken and the anticipated time to restore malfunctioning cooling systems to the normal operational capabilities. Where the problems are not resolved within a reasonable period of time this may include making available documentation that would demonstrate the action being taken, e.g. engineers reports, work orders, etc.
  • The anticipated time span involved if supplementary cooling can be deployed and how it is intended to be used to achieve a reasonable temperature in those areas;
  • and details of any short-term measures to be applied,

Management should plan for unusual temperature conditions

Guidance also states.   A period of sustained high ambient temperatures in summer is likely to occur at least every few years and it is important that the environment is managed to anticipate, and as far as possible, resolve problems with adequate pre-planning, local instructions and organisation to cope with unusual temperature conditions. Site managers are recommended to set up records of:

  • Lessons learned from previous occurrences
  • The heat gain sources identified in and around the premises
  • Concerns voiced or noted by staff
  • Problem areas identified with any relevant historical information
  • The monitored temperatures in problem areas
  • Local organisational measures implemented to resolve or alleviate problems
  • Correspondence with Service Partners and Commercial Director.

Informing Service Providers

Where individuals identify a heating or thermal comfort issue, they and site managers should contact the Sodexo Helpdesk on 0870 606 0065.  If the situation cannot be resolved satisfactorily, the individual or site manager should use the Estates Escalation process.  Keep your local PCS Health and Safety rep updated on progress.

It’s important that you keep a record of all stages so there is an audit trail if it needs to be escalated.  These can include things like any contact made and temperature readings.  Management should provide a thermometer if required.

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