Poor working conditions can have a substantial impact on our health, safety and wellbeing.
Hot and humid working environments can cause fatigue, dehydration, dizziness, heat stress and, in particularly serious cases, heat stroke. Cold temperatures can affect your dexterity and mobility, and may increase physical strain.
Equipment that is damaged or has not been suitably maintained can be dangerous. Floors that are covered in unsuitable or damaged material can cause people to slip over or trip up. Slips and trips are one of the most common workplace accidents, and are among the highest causes of serious injury at work.
Some people report feeling unwell after spending time in a particular building for no obvious reason. “Sick building syndrome”, as it is often called, can cause people to develop headaches; itchy skin, eyes, nose or throat; or affect their concentration. It is not known what causes it, but it thought to be a combination of things such as physical or environmental factors – such as ventilation, cleaning, maintenance and workstation layout – and job factors, such as the interest and control people have in their work.
What your employer should do
The main law governing your working conditions is the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992. Employers also have general duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations to assess and take all reasonable steps to manage the risks posed by your workplace or working conditions.
The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations set out basic health, safety and welfare standards and apply to a very wide range of workplaces – from factories, shops and offices to schools, hospitals and hotels. They also cover the common parts of shared buildings, private roads and paths on industrial estates and business parks, and temporary work sites (but not work on construction sites). Employers’ duties are clustered around a range of elements. The following is taken from the HSE’s Health and Safety Toolbox.
Employers must ensure that their workplaces and equipment are in an efficient state, in efficient working order and in good repair. This includes:
- making sure buildings are in good repair;
- maintaining the workplace and any equipment so that it is safe and works efficiently;
- putting right any dangerous defects immediately, or take steps to protect anyone at risk;
- fencing or covering floor openings, such as vehicle examination pits, when not in use;
- having enough space for safe movement and access; and
- making sure floors, corridors and stairs are free of obstructions, such as trailing cables.
Every workplace needs to have suitable and sufficient lighting. In practice, this means ensuring there is:
- good light, natural light where possible;
- a good level of local lighting at workstations where necessary;
- suitable forms of emergency lighting;
- well-lit stairs and corridors; and
- well-lit outside areas – for pedestrians and to help with work activities such as loading/unloading at night.
Moving around the premises
Employers must make sure that floors and walkways are suitable, and organise traffic routes so that pedestrians and vehicles can move about the workplace safely. This means:
- separate routes may be necessary for pedestrians and vehicles;
- level, even floors and surfaces without holes or broken boards;
- hand-rails on stairs and ramps where necessary;
- safely constructed doors and gates; and
- floors and surfaces which are not slippery. Find out more about slips and trips.
Furniture, furnishings and fittings must be kept clean. Employers need to:
- provide clean floors and stairs, with effective drainage where necessary;
- provide clean premises, furniture and fittings;
- remove dirt, refuse and trade waste regularly;
- clear up spillages promptly; and
- keep internal walls and ceilings clean.
Hygiene and welfare
Workplaces need to contain readily-accessible toilets and washing facilities in sufficient numbers, and staff need to have access to drinking water, and rest and eating facilities. This includes:
- clean toilets and hand basins, with running hot and cold or warm water, soap and towels or another suitable means of drying;
- somewhere to rest and eat meals, including facilities for eating food which would otherwise become contaminated;
- showers for dirty work or emergencies;
- drying facilities for wet work clothes, if practical and necessary;
- accommodation or hanging space for personal clothing not worn at work (and somewhere to change if special clothing is worn for work); and
- rest facilities for pregnant women and nursing mothers;
Indoor workplaces should be well ventilated and a reasonable temperature. They should be large enough for people to work comfortably. This means:
- when working indoors, the temperature needs to be reasonable (see below);
- local heating or cooling should be provided where a comfortable temperature cannot be maintained throughout each workroom;
- there should be good ventilation – a sufficient supply of fresh, clean air drawn from outside or a ventilation system;
- heating systems should not give off dangerous or offensive levels of fume into the workplace; and
- there is enough workspace, including suitable workstations and seating.
For work outdoors, employers should consider things such as the weather, temperature (both hot and cold) and sun exposure.
There is no maximum working temperature. The law says that the temperature of any indoor workplace must be “reasonable”. The HSE says that reasonable temperatures will vary depending on the workplace, and that factors such as humidity, radiant heat sources, clothing will have an effect. However, if most people are complaining of the heat, common sense says that it is too hot and something must be done. The HSE says that in these circumstances, employers should carry out a risk assessment and act on its findings.
There is a minimum temperature for work indoors: 16 degrees Celsius, or 13 degrees if you are carrying out strenuous work.
- Read the TUC’s guide to workplace temperature
- The HSE has a brief guide to the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations