Can Your Boss Make You Work without Air Conditioning?


With increasingly hot summers and heatwaves becoming more common, severe, and dangerous – at what temperature is it okay for you to legally leave work?

Heatstroke, sunstroke, dehydration, excessive sweating, and other heat-related hazards can lead to severe illness or even death. Foodservice employees who work long hours near ovens and stoves are at great risk when they must go without air conditioning. Construction workers exposed to the elements outside can become dizzy, disoriented, fatigued, or confused, leading to catastrophic or fatal accidents on worksites. Even office workers can get exposed to dangerous temperatures when AC units break down on hot days.

Heat Exposure on the Job

Excessive heat and humidity in the workplace can cause headaches, dizziness, fatigue, confusion, or even losing consciousness (fainting or passing out). You may experience heavy sweating, muscle cramps, weakness, or nausea. Dehydration could impair your judgment. Aside from heatstroke, these symptoms can also cause you to injure yourself on the job – especially if you have responsibilities that involve physical labor or operating machinery.

A 2021 report has found that workplace injuries caused by heat are significantly undercounted in the United States. For example, if an employee falls off a ladder because they were dizzy from the heat, government agencies normally wouldn’t count that as a heat-related injury. When reports are adjusted to include these types of injuries as heat-related, the number of heat-related injuries in California alone jumps from 60 per year to 24,800 each year.

There’s more. The same study found that the number of workplace injuries actually increased with the temperature. Compared to temperature in the 60s, a worker’s risk of injury on days between 80-85°F increased by 3.5%. When the temperature hit 90-95°F, an employee’s risk of injury increased by 7%. Indoor workers are just as likely as outdoor workers to get injured in hot weather if their environment isn’t temperature-controlled.

The heat can be a serious problem in areas around the country that are not used to hot weather now experiencing record-breaking heat conditions under heat domes and heatwaves. Cooler weather cities like Portland and Seattle are often ill-equipped to deal with the heat when few buildings have air conditioning units installed, with deadly consequences.

  • Indoor businesses like bakeries, commercial kitchens, mills, foundries, manufacturing plants, laundries, and warehouses can pose a high risk of heat stress.
  • Outdoor businesses like farms, agricultural operations, construction, road work, oil or gas extraction, roofing, landscaping, and package delivery often risk heat exposure.

Workers are the most at risk from dying of heat exposure when they first start a job at a warm or hot environment. The body needs time to acclimate to the heat. Going into a new 8- or 12-hour shift without building up your tolerance for heat can be extremely dangerous. When you suffer from dehydration, your body loses more fluid than you take in. This disrupts the balance of minerals such as salt and sugar in your body, affecting the way your organs function. In the most extreme heat conditions, your body functions can simply shut down.

As an employee, what are your rights when it comes to the heat? Can you legally walk off the job if heat conditions are endangering your health?

OSHA Rules for Air Conditioning in the Workplace

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has no official rules or limits on temperature regulation in the workplace. American industries are simply too varied for blanket rules, with equipment and materials that require different temperatures to function properly.

However, OSHA does have a General Duty Clause that states:

A business must provide employees a workplace that is free from recognizable hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm.

When temperatures rise to extremes, that becomes a recognizable hazard with clear risks to the health and safety of workers. Your employer must take steps to address the issue.

OSHA has recommendations for employers regarding office temperature, humidity, and indoor air quality. Although this is guidance and not a rigid rule, OSHA recommends keeping indoor office temperatures between 68-76°F and humidity at 20-60%. The OSHA website also has a heat index guide for employers that stresses the importance of water, rest, and shade.

OSHA considers office temperature and humidity to be a matter of personal comfort rather than hazards that can cause serious injury or death. The General Duty Clause does not apply for personal comfort cases where health or safety is not at risk.

You have the right to report unsafe working conditions caused by high heat and request a workplace inspection from OSHA. It’s illegal for your employer to retaliate against you (such as fire you) for reporting heat hazards that threaten your safety or health. So while you may not necessarily be able to walk out of work, you could have a legal claim against your employer.

Workplace Temperature Laws

Some states go above and beyond OSHA’s regulations to protect employees from heat-related illnesses. For example, California has enacted safety orders under state law to protect employees in specific outdoor industries such as agriculture, construction, landscaping, and transportation. The law requires employers in those industries to:

  • Provide shade for outdoor employees,
  • Provide water and encourage their workers to hydrate every hour,
  • Allow their employees to take cool-down rests,
  • Implement high-heat procedures when the temperature goes over 95°F,
  • Have heat illness emergency response procedures in place,
  • Closely observe new employees for acclimatization,
  • Train employees around heat exposure and illness, and
  • Maintain a heat illness prevention plan.

Washington and Minnesota also have laws in the books protecting workers from excessive heat.

If you’ve gotten hurt because of heat exposure at work, you could have a legal claim for personal injury – especially if your employer knew about the hazard and did nothing to fix it. If you got fired because you reported unsafe conditions at work, you could have a claim for wrongful termination. A lawsuit could get you compensation for the injuries you suffered, your medical bills, and any income you lost as a result of being unable to work.

Sources:

  1. U.S. Workplace Injury Data - The Guardian
  2. Hotter Temps, Increased Work Injures - LA Times
  3. Heat Waves: Amazon’s New Workplace Crisis - Gizmodo
  4. Outdoor Work Safety - OSHA
  5. Heat-Related Illness Prevention - DOSH
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