How cold is too cold for employees who can't afford to turn the heating on?

As the Met Office issues yellow snow and ice warnings across the UK, People Management asks legal experts what duty of care extends to home workers

Credit: Valerii Honcharuc/iStockphoto/Getty Images

As cold spikes are set to hit the UK, employment lawyers warn that organisations have a legal obligation to help remote workers stay warm. 

The Met Office has issued a string of yellow weather warnings for snow and ice across the UK over the next few days, and the UK Health Security Agency has put out a level three cold weather alert across England. 

With temperatures dropping – last night saw lows of -10°C, which are predicted to continue into the weekend – employees’ heating bills are likely to rise, especially remote and hybrid workers who will face the sudden cold snap at home. 

Indeed, Adam Scorer, chief executive from National Energy Action, told Sky News that "impossibly high prices and now cold weather will leave millions struggling to stay warm and safe at home”.  

But, what do employers have to be mindful of when it comes to keeping workers safe in plummeting temperatures? 

Firms who have a split of office-based and remote/hybrid workers shouldn’t forget they have a responsibility to all employees. According to Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, the recommended minimum temperature in a workplace should be at least 16°C, or if the work involves rigorous physical exertion, it can be 13°C.

Jonathan White, legal and compliance director at National Accident Helpline, says that while there are no laws that state workers can stop working because of temperature-related complaints, employers are under a legal obligation to ensure a reasonable temperature. 

“Employers are expected to do whatever is ‘reasonably practicable’ to safeguard their workers’ wellbeing, and they must provide a safe environment where staff are not at risk of falling ill from the cold,” says White, who adds this applies to “all employees, even those working from home”. 

White also suggests carrying out risk assessments, because special considerations must be made for those with existing health conditions that could be worsened or impacted by cold temperatures. 

There are several actions employers can take to ensure that employees are comfortable, and that the working environment allows people to work in reasonable comfort without the need for any specialist clothing – unless the job requires it. 

Alexandra Mizzi, legal director at Howard Kennedy LLP, says employers aren’t expected to take a hands-on approach by turning up at employees homes “brandishing thermometers”. 

She instead suggests home workers be given practical advice. “Remind home-working staff of the need to maintain a safe temperature and give advice about how to achieve this, such as working in the warmest room in the house and using portable heaters,” says Mizzi.

“Employers aren't obliged to pay towards heating bills or provide home heaters, but should suggest alternatives for staff who can't afford to maintain a safe working temperature, such as coming into the office,” she adds.

However, remote and hybrid workers who could be facing a hefty commuting cost or simply enjoy working from home could grow resentful if they have to attend the office purely for heat, says Molly Johnson-Jones, co-founder and chief executive at Flexa Careers.

“Staff who typically prefer to work remotely may opt to come into offices simply because they feel that turning on their own heating at home isn’t an option – rather than because they actually want to be in the office. If this is the case, it may be that companies have a serious culture problem on their hands,” says Johnson-Jones, who warns this could be “bad news” for employers. 

She adds: “Workers who resent being in offices – even if they are warm – are at risk of poorer mental health, as well as underperforming and disengaging.” 

Resentment could rise further as the temperature drops, as People Management previously highlighted that nearly half (48 per cent) of UK employees want a monthly cost of living pay boost from their employer. 

Employees are increasingly putting the onus on their employers to look after their wellbeing, and the cost of heating over the cold spike could ramp up demands, as the research by Randstad also found more than a quarter (28 per cent) said they want subsidies for daily expenses like the cost of energy or travel. 

Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula, says that some employers may do just that.  

“Some employers might introduce a contractual home working allowance, to provide financial assistance for employees to keep their heating on throughout the day, but this is not a legal requirement so organisations can implement schemes at their discretion,” explains Palmer, who adds that employers can also remind employees of the the government’s Cold Weather Payment. 

Specific eligibility criteria applies to the payment, but some employees in England and Wales may be entitled to receive £25 for each seven day period between 1 November and 31 March. This applies if the average temperature in the employee’s area is recorded as, or forecast to be, zero degrees celsius or below over seven consecutive days, and in Scotland, employees might be entitled to an annual £50 Winter Heating Payment.

However Carl McGuire, partner at Plexus sends the reminder that an employer “cannot control the weather, how their employees choose to heat their homes nor their ability to heat their homes either during working hours or after working hours”. 

“Advice can and should be given around proper heating, hot drinks and suitable clothing but again the employer cannot ensure that it is followed by an employee within their own home,” he adds.