Working in cold temperatures


A H&S rep should identify cold areas of work, ensure regular breaks in warm environments, investigate complaints and input on the purchase of personal protective clothing.

Working in cold temperatures

Both outdoor and indoor work can expose workers to cold temperatures. Outdoor temperatures during the winter months have been known to stay below freezing during the day and even lower at night. Certain indoor workers, such as those working in cold stores, may also be exposed to low temperatures often below 8 ̊C.

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The hazards

Working in cold temperatures can cause the hands and feet to become cold and painful.  It is often associated with loss of feeling making it difficult to carry out detailed work with the hands.  In extreme cases exposure to cold can lead to frostbite.

In addition to problems with the hands and feet, working in cold temperatures can lead to a lowering of the body temperature which in turn can cause problems with concentration, tiredness and an increased risk of accidents. 

Work in cold conditions can also increase the risk of workers developing vibration white finger, back and other muscular injuries.  Workers suffering from breathing problems such as emphysema and heart/circulation conditions may be more sensitive to cold working.

Outdoor workers may be more at risk from developing problems due to the combination of cold air temperatures and strong winds, called the ‘wind chill factor’, and wet conditions.

Dealing with the hazard

Indoor Work

According to the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) approved code of practice to the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 the minimum temperature in indoor workplaces should be 16 ̊C or 13 ̊C where the nature of the work is physical.  In most working environments this will be easy to achieve with the provision of general heating systems and/or stand-alone heating systems and the protection of workers from drafts.  However where the work area has to be kept cold, due to food hygiene laws or technical requirements it is far better to keep the food or product cold rather than the worker. 

This can be done by:

  • Enclosing or insulating the product
  • Pre-chilling the product
  • Keeping chilled areas as small as possible
  • Exposing the product to workroom temperatures as briefly as possible

If this cannot be done the following measures should be put in place:

  • Rotation of work from a cold to warm area
  • Provision of warm rest areas with facilities to make or obtain hot drinks
  • Maintenance of air-flow to a minimum protecting workers from drafts
  • Provision of suitable personal protective clothing – including hats and gloves.It is also important that clothing is waterproof and ‘breathable’ (as manual work can produce sweat which can contribute to rapid cooling of body temperature).

Outdoor work

The following measures should be taken to protect outdoor workers:

  • Provision of adequate breaks in warm and sheltered rest facilities to make or obtain hot drinks
  • Provision of suitable personal protective equipment – including hats and gloves – it is also important that protective clothing is waterproof and ‘breathable’ (as manual work can produce sweat which can contribute to rapid cooling of body temperature)
  • Provision of drying rooms where wet clothing can dried
  • Insulation, where possible, of the handles or hand held tools
  • Special precautions in the case of people working alone in the cold

The law

The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 state that workplace temperatures ‘must be reasonable’.  The regulations also require that a sufficient number of thermometers are provided in indoor workplaces.  The supporting approved code of practice (ACoP) states that the minimum temperature in indoor workplaces should be 16 ̊C or 13 ̊C where the work is physical.  The ACoP also states that where such a temperature is impractical because of a cold process, all reasonable steps should be taken to achieve a temperature which is close as possible to comfortable.

The Personal Protective Equipment Regulations 1992 require that where there is a risk to health or safety employees are provided with suitable personal protective equipment.

Key action points

GMB Safety Representatives should ensure that:

  • The employer has identified areas where workers are exposed to cold temperatures and has taken measure to increase temperatures or protect workers from the cold
  • They negotiate regular rest breaks in warm environments
  • They investigate member’s complaints of cold working environments by monitoring the indoor temperatures on a daily basis
  • They are consulted on the purchase of suitable personal protective clothing

For more information please contact the National Health, Safety and Environment department: daniel.shears@gmb.org.uk or lynsey.mann@gmb.org.uk

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