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My wife works at the front desk at a non-profit dental center in Ohio, US. Over the past year, she has complained that the temperature of the office is unusually cold. For a while, my advice to her was to just wear a sweater and try to reason with management, but not to expect a whole lot there, given that the thermostat setting in any workplace is a normal complaint for many.

That was until I visited her at work one day. It is a constant 40-50°F/5-10°C, so cold that I couldn't imagine working in it unless I was doing manual labor.

Here's the situation as far as she's described it:

  • All employees find the temperature extremely cold, with the exception of two employees who are quite heavyset

  • One employee has to wear leather gloves, without which her fingers go numb

  • Management tells employees that the cooling/heating system is old, and they are unwilling to invest any money in repairing it.

  • Management does not allow personal space heaters or blankets, and employees are limited on the clothing they can wear due to a uniform requirement (no sweatshirts or jackets/coats, only a light sweater).

My wife's described the problem as being so bad that she not only wants to quit, but that the working conditions are contributing to what she believes is depression in herself and some of her coworkers. She is looking for other employment, but nothing so far.

Is there any path for the employees to get this problem fixed, or is this one of those situations where the employer has no real obligations?

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    Let us continue this discussion in chat. – paparazzo Nov 13 '16 at 16:49
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    What about the customers ? If it's a front-desk for a dental center, then I imagine a lot of patients come through there every day. Don't they ever complain ? Management might not too empathetic to its employees but, when it seems like it might lose significant money over it, then it will definitely ring a bell. – Radu Murzea Nov 13 '16 at 20:15
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    @RaduMurzea The patients probably deal with it as non-profit. It is probably free or low cost for low income. – paparazzo Nov 13 '16 at 21:58
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    Was this fine during the summer? I would have assumed this was a lack of heating due to cost/being broken/what ever but the comment about "over the past year" made me wonder. If it is simply a broken/poorly working heater could your wife, with the bosses blessing, see if they can find someone who was willing to at least look at it for free? As a Non-Profit it may be possible to find a local company or individual HVAC contractor who could look at it and even write it off as a donation. – Evan Steinbrenner Nov 14 '16 at 18:05
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    Do you have a local tv station that does investigations? They would probably love to come report on the temperature and how bad it is for patients and staff. – HLGEM Nov 15 '16 at 22:30
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I was surprised to learn that OSHA doesn't mandate safe workplace temperatures (link stopped working -- see block quote at end).

Your wife is stuck with the same choices as any other unpleasant workplace condition:

  1. Change it
  2. Tolerate it
  3. Leave

Those are the choices we all have for irritants in our lives. It's an exhaustive list of options.

Inside each are sub-options. Here are a few.

Change: lobby; guerilla action; unionize; manage upward; make a case that staff turnover is expensive relative to zone temperature control; research inexpensive fixes the boss can afford; create a team to find savings to pay for the heating upgrade

Tolerate: buy termal underwear; put a heating pad on the chair and sit on it; get electric warming socks; buy a decorative IR heater that looks like artwork and hides in plain sight; buy IR ceiling panels and sneak them in.

When management cannot be bothered to make the workplace comfortable, they cannot be trusted in other ways either. The excuses they make to avoid fixing the heat, are the same excuses they'll make to take shortcuts on safety, on honesty, etc.

Leave.


Block Quoting the OSHA Workplace Temperature Posting from shrm.org:

Legal & Regulatory: Are we required to keep the workplace a certain temperature?

Nov 12, 2012

Not necessarily. There is no requirement for employers to maintain a certain workplace temperature under federal Occupational Safety and health Administration (OSHA) regulations; however, OSHA does recommend employers maintain workplace temperatures in the range of 68-76 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity control in the range of 20 to 60 percent. According to a 2003 OSHA interpretation letter, “office temperature and humidity conditions are generally a matter of human comfort rather than hazards that could cause death or serious physical harm. OSHA cannot cite the General Duty Clause for personal discomfort.”

Indoor air temperature preferences vary by individual. While one worker may shiver and reach for a sweater during the summer with the thermostat set on 70 degrees, another worker may break a sweat. Finding a happy medium can often be difficult, but consider the bottom line: a 2004 study by Cornell University found that 77 degrees is the optimum temperature for office employee productivity. “At 77 degrees Fahrenheit, the workers were keyboarding 100 percent of the time with a 10 percent error rate, but at 68 degrees, their keying rate went down to 54 percent of the time with a 25 percent error rate,” the study reports. “Temperature is certainly a key variable that can impact performance,” the study concludes.

Aside from productivity, office temperature can also have a negative effect on morale, and allowing employees some flexibility in regulating indoor temperature can increase job satisfaction.

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    In Germany, no law mandates a certain temperatures at work, only that the workplace has to be a healthy environment (§618 BGB). Courts then decided that everything below 20°C is too low for an office, and below 18°C is too low for a factory floor, unless mandated by the product (e.g. cold storage or meat processing), in which case the employer may not deny the employees to wear appropriate thermal protective clothing or, according to some courts, even has to provide that clothing. Not sure whether there were similar laws/decisions in America... – Alexander Nov 13 '16 at 21:29
  • @Alexander Unfortunately, there is no solid legal precedent in the US, similar to how Germany was before the court mandate. OSHA could in theory investigate and fine a company if conditions were detrimental to workers' health, but it's a long shot in this case. Most non-profits treated with much more leniency than for-profit businesses when it comes to grey areas like this. – user12985 Nov 13 '16 at 22:11
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    @Alexander do you have a source for those court decisions in Germany? – simbabque Nov 14 '16 at 16:45
  • SHRM is a bad link, website is for users only. Can you please block quote the relevant information? – Myles Nov 17 '16 at 19:55
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    @Myles - here you go. Added it to the end of the article. Sorry I thought I'd tested the link adequately! – Thomas Cox Nov 19 '16 at 19:29
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According to me the best option would be make a combined effort to change the cooling/heating system.If the issue is regarding money then you can try getting donations for your organization. I think the working environment should be perfect for a productive job. So If nothing works quitting should be the last resort left as health is more important.

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