Know Your Rights: When Is it Too Cold to Work?

Freezing your socks off at work? Here’s what you can do about it.

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Too cold to work concept

Old Man Winter is back with a vengeance, and he is set to wreak havoc on those who celebrated his departure last year. He will chill you to the bone with freezing temperatures, push you to the ground with strong wind gusts, and ensure that your work conditions are intolerable — indoors and outdoors.

Indeed, after one day of minus [insert degrees here], you will be asking: is it spring yet?

You might also put forward another question: is it too cold to work?

Indeed, the law does vary across jurisdictions, but there is a general acceptance that companies must follow regulations or do what is best for their employees by instituting health and safety protocols.

Here’s everything you need to know about working in cold temperatures and your worker rights.

When is it too cold to work?

What you would not give right now for a bucket of hot coffee, a bowl of chilli and a movie marathon! You’re working in sub-zero temperatures, and you feel like you have gained an extra 30 pounds due to all the layers of clothing you’re wearing — and it still isn’t enough to be warm.

So, when exactly is it too cold to work outside, anyway? For that matter, can the indoor workplace be too cold to work as well?

According to Environment Canada, temperatures that range between 32°F and -15.8°F can cause slight discomfort, and you should dress warmly. When temperatures range between --14°F and -65.2°F, you have a heightened risk of hypothermia and frostnip frostbite. Anything that goes beyond -67°F is hazardous and dangerous and will require you to cancel outdoor activities and stay indoors.

Can I leave work if it’s too cold?

Of course, you can always leave work; just be prepared to suffer the consequences.

With that out of the way, unless you’re showing signs of distress, then you will generally be required to work the shift. You do have the option of taking a sick day, or you can quit if this repeated work in the cold is unbearable and horrific for your health.

Employers in most developed markets are mandated to institute every precaution to protect workers in most circumstances, whether it’s too cold or too hot to work. So, you do have the option of leaving work early, but it’s not a right that will afford you full wages for the day.

How cold does it have to be before I complain?

Can you tolerate the cold less than some of your coworkers? Are you more susceptible to the health effects of the cold? If so, you should bring this to the attention of your employer.

That said, if many employees are complaining to your boss about the frigid temperatures, then the business will execute a cold stress prevention program. This includes identifying worker training in these conditions, incorporating monitoring methods, instituting responses and preventative measures, and ensuring understanding of first aid and emergency responses.

How can I beat the cold?

Here are several tips to fight frigid temperatures and remain comfortable — inside and outside:

1. Wear a few layers

When you’re working in sub-zero temperatures for an extended period of time, you do not want your skin exposed. In fact, you should aim to have layers covering your body, from double socks to double (or triple) sweaters. As long as the many layers do not hinder your work, then you should do what is comfortable.

2. Drink hot fluids

A hot bucket of coffee, a hot cup of tea, a container of hot chocolate — whatever suits your taste buds, you’ll need to sip on hot fluids throughout your day. This will not only keep you hydrated but also ensure that you can endure the freezing temperatures.

3. Eat hot meals

The same idea applies to your meals during snack time or at lunch. You need to eat hot meals, not something cold like a salad or something mild like an egg sandwich. Just be sure to purchase a thermos that can ensure your hot meals can survive the bombardment of cold wind.

4. Close the blinds

Are you working in an office during the cold temperatures, and it turns out that the heat is insufficient? A simple trick is to close the blinds, particularly during a sunny day, because this will trap the heat. So, for example, if the sunshine was pouring into your office for a couple of hours, then you can proceed to shut the blinds to prevent that warmth from escaping.

5. Put hand warmers in your pockets

If you insert hand warmers in your pockets when it’s really cold inside or outside, then you’re a clever person. This can help when you can’t wear gloves for whatever reason, because you can just put your hands in your pockets while clandestinely inserting your fingers and palms into a hand warmer.

6. Wear fingerless gloves

If you can wear gloves, it’s best to go for the fingerless kind. That way, you can still type away freely without the gloves getting in the way. The blood runs closer to the surface near your wrists, so keeping this area warm increases your body temperature.

7. Do some exercise

If you’re spending your day sitting at a desk, it’s worth getting up and moving around a little and maybe doing some desk exercises. Or you could even get up and do some jumping jacks to really get the blood pumping!

8. Close open doors

There’s nothing worse than a cold draught hitting the back of your neck. Make sure, where possible, you keep all open doors closed to keep the warmth in the room. If you’re allowed, you could also look at getting some draught excluders to keep the cool air on the other side of the door.

9. Keep some dry (and warm) socks in your drawer

You get into the office after walking from the bus in the pouring rain. Your socks and shoes are soaking wet. But wait: you’ve got a nice, warm pair of fluffy socks and a spare pair of bone-dry shoes in your office drawer! Keeping this spare pair in your drawer means you won’t be sitting at your desk in damp socks and shoes, and definitely means you’re a bit warmer.

10. Ask for an office heater

If all else fails, you could always ask management for a plug-in heater for the office. It will have to undergo electrical inspection for safety reasons, but it’s worth asking. Who knows? Your manager might be feeling the cold, too!

Can my employer make the workplace warmer?

Employers don’t have any control over the temperature outside. But they’re still required to implement appropriate measures to make working outdoors more tolerable, such as heating areas, hot beverages, and frequent and extended breaks. They can also determine if certain tasks can be postponed to another time when the falling temperatures ease up.

While there are no regulations pertaining to maximum or minimum exposure to the cold, workplaces still need to implement several measures to ensure that workers are safe in sub-zero weather. Here’s what you can expect:

  • Constant observation by either the supervisor or through a buddy system
  • The pace of work is altered, and employees are given time to get adjusted to the conditions
  • Employees’ weight and bulkiness of clothing are taken into consideration
  • Management limits the length of time for sitting and standing
  • Businesses institute safe work practices that recognize cold stress, frostbite and hypothermia

For jobs that contain cold environments, like cold rooms or walk-in freezers, business owners need to erect heating workstations, rest areas, appropriate thermal clothing and rotating duties.

Are there any health hazards to be concerned about?

You’ll unlikely be exposed to anything that dips below -67°F. But even if you have to work in temperatures hovering around -40°F, there are plenty of health hazards to be concerned about. So, what are they?

  • Frostbite: Your skin looks and feels hard, blisters form, and you may have a hard time moving that part of your body.
  • Hypothermia: When your body temperature drops below -31°F, you could suffer from confusion, fatigue, clumsiness, shivering and frequent urination.
  • Heart: Because your heart is working harder to keep you warm, you’ll experience higher blood pressure. If you suffer from a heart condition, then strenuous activities in the cold can trigger a heart attack.
  • Balance: Cold, ice and strong wind gusts can impact your balance, leaving you feeling on edge and teetering. You will have a difficult time standing upright.
  • Dry skin: Winter air is quite dry, so you can have all sorts of problems, from dry skin to feeling like you are contracting a cold.

Everyone’s body is different, and some can endure freezing temperatures better than others. You may or may not experience these issues. If you do, then seek medical treatment immediately.

What if I work in a school?

If you work in a school, there are regulations in place regarding the temperature. New York City Department of Health regulations, for example, state that, between 6am and 10pm, the indoor temperature should be at least 68°F.

The reason for this is for the safety of the children, but also because studies have proven that students’ results vary dramatically depending on the temperature in the classroom. In one study, when in an exam room at 61°F, students averaged a score of 76%, while students who completed an exam in a room at 72°F scored an average of 90%.

If the temperature drops below the recommended level, make sure to speak to the school office to make them aware so they can put things in place to make the learning environment more comfortable for students and staff.

Although there isn’t a specific law relating to low temperatures in schools, they will usually follow guidance from the National Weather Service, and if they’re unable to bring the temperature up, they may choose to close the school until the issue can be resolved.

What if I can’t get to work because of extreme weather?

Employers, by law, have to provide a safe workspace that is free from hazards. If they’re unable to do this, they should offer alternate options that are more suitable for the circumstances.

If the weather is so bad that you can’t safely make your way into work, you might have the option to work from home. If you don’t have this option, contact your employer to let them know that you can’t get there safely. Each workplace will have policies in place for cases of extreme weather.

Although employers don’t have to legally pay you if you can’t get into work due to snow, for example, some workplaces may offer alternate options, like working your time back or booking a vacation day.

Key takeaways

If you’re one of the people in the office that’s constantly asking for the heating to be turned up or wandering around with a scarf and a hot cocoa, then try some of the tips above to warm you up.

To recap, here are some things to try:

  • Eat a hot lunch.
  • Layer up your clothes.
  • Take a spare change of socks and shoes.
  • Wear fingerless gloves.
  • Ask for a plug-in heater.

However, if you feel that you’re being asked to work in unsafe and dangerous conditions, take the matter further and speak with HR or your manager to try and resolve the issue. At the end of the day, being cold and uncomfortable will affect your productivity, and that’s the last thing your employer wants.

Got any questions? Let us know in the comments section below.

Originally published on November 10, 2019. Updated by Hayley Ramsey.