Ask Alto : Should air conditioning be part of workers’ rights?

September 07, 2022 Share this article:

Ask Alto

Offices are notoriously either too hot or too cold – there’s never any way to set the air conditioning temperature in a way that suits everyone. When people were working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic they could control their environments. Now that workers are going back to the office, the aircon wars will begin again – this time with urgency: an extremely hot northern hemisphere summer means ambient temperature is high on the agenda of many workplaces.

How does temperature factor into workplace rights?

A safe and healthy working environment is one of the International Labour Organization’s key pillars of workers’ rights. The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe says organisations are responsible for establishing and maintaining a working environment “where employees are able to work safely, without risk to their physical and psychological health and welfare.”

Safety includes the ambient temperature: too hot and too cold can be dangerous. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says exposure to extreme heat can result in occupational illnesses and injuries, including:

  • heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, or heat rashes
  • the risk of injuries in workers from sweaty palms, fogged-up safety glasses and dizziness.

Who is at risk in a hot workplace?

Workers most obviously at risk of heat stress include outdoor workers and workers in hot environments (think bakeries and boiler rooms).

But recent extreme heat waves mean that office workers everywhere could be at risk of heat stress. In July 2022, the World Economic Forum reported that almost all of the Northern Hemisphere was experiencing record heat. And the problem isn’t going to go away. “On the whole, rising global temperatures are making heat waves more common, severe, and lengthy,” WEF says.

Pregnant women are particularly vulnerable. According to the UNFPA, heat worsens maternal and neonatal health outcomes: an increase of one degree Celsius in the week before delivery corresponds with a 6% greater likelihood of stillbirth.

Heat makes people less productive

A 2018 study showed that work area temperature has a huge impact on how productive people are. The study showed that productivity dropped by as much as 4% per degree when temperatures rise above 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27° Celsius) in workplaces requiring manual labour.

Other studies show how heat affects workers in other environments. The human body is at optimal productivity when the room is between 69.8 and 77°F (21°C to 25°C). A 2001 study on call centre workers found a slight decrease in productivity (1.8%) per degree above 77°F (25°C).

Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, famously attributed the island nation’s economic success to air conditioning. “Air conditioning was a most important invention for us… Without air conditioning, you can work only in the cool early-morning hours or at dusk. The first thing I did upon becoming prime minister was to install air conditioners in buildings where the civil service worked. This was key to public efficiency.”

So, the answer is air conditioning?

While air conditioning (AC) might seem to be the solution (and indeed might increasingly be vital to survival for many people), there are downsides. Critically, it contributes to the problem we’re trying to fix:

  • There are wide variations in efficiency between AC units, and in the power sources they use. The spaces they cool aren’t all efficiently insulated either.
  • Many ACs use chemicals like hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which can be upward of 12,000 times more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

Air conditioning units are also very power-hungry. A small unit cooling a single room, on average, consumes more power than running four fridges. During a heatwave in Beijing in 2018, it’s estimated that 50% of the power capacity was going to air conditioning. The implications of increased air conditioning use in a world in which many countries are experiencing energy crises are frightening. “These are ‘oh shit’ moments.” says John Dulac, an analyst at the International Energy Agency (IEA).

What should employers do?

  • If you must rely on air conditioning to cool your space, make sure it is the most efficient available, and that it doesn’t use HFCs.
  • Ensure that spaces are properly insulated.
  • Consider running AC systems powered by solar energy.
  • Consider misting and ventilation systems and cool roofs designed to reflect more sunlight than a conventional roof.
  • Consider flexible working hours, worker rotation, changes to the dress code or changing the location of a business.

Climate curved balls and unintended consequences

It would be ironic if employees who campaigned for the right to continue to work from home post-pandemic were driven back to offices not by a management decree but by the lure of a temperature-controlled workspace. This is increasingly an issue: given the war in Ukraine and rising energy costs worldwide, pundits are predicting a long, cold winter. ESG committees are increasingly having to factor such conditions into their risk models, especially as short-term fixes (like aircon for all) have longer-term, irreversible environmental consequences.