Labor Laws for Working in a Cold Plant With Minimum Heat
A workplace’s indoor air quality, which includes temperature, humidity and the presence of contaminants like microbes and tobacco smoke, can affect a worker's comfort level, morale, health and productivity. Complaints about indoor air quality are often subjective in nature, and in most cases, U.S. labor law does not specify any minimum indoor temperature in the workplace. Even in the absence of temperature-specific regulations, employers are required to provide workplaces free of known hazards, such as extreme cold.
While there is no hard and fast rule about temperature in offices, OSHA is concerned about the indoor air quality in offices and has issued several regulations regarding the elimination of indoor air pollution. In those regulations, it recommends that temperatures in offices be maintained between 68 and 76 degrees Fahrenheit and that humidity be maintained between 20 and 60 percent.
Spray rooms and booths are specially built enclosures in which spray finishes such as varnish or paint are applied to furniture, cars, tools or other items. The sprays and propellants employed in these processes are often volatile and pose an immediate danger if inhaled. The rules for ventilation of these facilities are extensive and oriented toward protecting the workers who work in and around them, as well as preventing a buildup of volatile compounds in the enclosed area. Federal OSHA regulations set the minimum permissible temperature in spray facilities at 65 F during heating season.
Workers in a cold environment risk hypothermia, a reduction in the body’s core temperature to 95 F or below. This is the temperature below which bodily functions are impaired, and it happens when the body loses heat faster than it can produce it. It is extremely dangerous and requires aggressive but carefully monitored rewarming treatment. Practically speaking, hypothermia isn’t a concern in the workplace unless the ambient temperature falls below 50 to 60 F. However, health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, hypothyroidism, circulatory problems or cardiovascular disease, among others, exacerbate a worker’s susceptibility to hypothermia. Older workers and those in poor physical condition also may be more vulnerable.
People who work in environments that are cold due to environmental conditions, such as construction projects, or due to requirements of the job, like food storage and ice-making facilities, should wear personal protective equipment to protect themselves from heat loss. Heat generally leaves the body through any exposed skin. OSHA recommends wearing at least three layers of clothing, a hat or hood, and insulated boots. Note that the layer of clothing closest to the skin should be synthetic, wool or silk to wick perspiration away from the skin, because the body loses heat five times faster through wet skin than dry.
Dehydration can occur rapidly in a cold work environment, so proper hydration practices are crucial. Whenever possible, work should be done in pairs, so workers can keep an eye on each other. Radiant heaters can be used, and wind barriers cut down on wind chill. Training in recognizing and treating cold stress is also important and should be integrated into the health and safety programs of workplaces where working in the cold is anticipated.