Ask LH: Is My Boss Allowed To Switch Off The Air-Conditioner To Save Money?

Hey Lifehacker, It is going to be a hot few days in Melbourne and that means war over the office air-con. We have been told it is not allowed to be on all day because of the cost. Is this legal? Or even sensible? And any hints on how to stay cool? Thanks, Drenched Cubicle Slave

Hot office picture from Shutterstock

Dear DCS,

This doesn't sound sensible at all. It has been proven time and time again that a hot, unhappy workforce tends to be lethargic and unmotivated. This means that any savings on the electricity bill will almost certainly be wiped out by a drop in productivity. If your employer is looking to cut costs, he's going about it the wrong way.

In terms of the legalities of the situation, occupational health and safety rules in Australia require all working environments to be safe with a minimal risk to employees' health, including heat-related illnesses. Some states also require business offices to maintain a specific temperature range that is comfortable and suitable to work in; typically between 20°C and 26°C. (If you want to get really pedantic, this article explains the exact optimal temperature for office environments.)

In other words, your boss definitely shouldn't be switching off the AC if this causes people to sweat buckets. Depending on the layout of the building, he may also be breaking additional health and safety laws relating to ventilation, humidity and airflow.

A quick internet search should bring up the relevant legislation and guidelines for your state. It might be worth sending these to your boss as an unsubtle hint. (If you prefer the coward's approach, leave them anonymously on his desk.)

Just be aware that if the business is really struggling, management is going to have to cut costs somewhere — would you rather be hot and bothered, or out of a job?

If you'd prefer not to go to war, there are plenty of DIY office hacks you can employ to make the summer heat more bearable. Some examples include building your own portable air conditioner or desk fan, cultivating a taste for water, treating your computer for excessive temperature and occasionally misting yourself with a spray bottle of cold water. Failing that, you could always ask to work from home!

If any readers have additional suggestions or OH&S factoids to share, let DCS know in the comments section below.

See also: How Can I Get Over The Summer Productivity Slump? | How To Heat Your House Efficiently | Why Is It So Damn Hot In Australia Right Now?

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    My boss want me to put on a frickin tie!! Great idea, put more material on your body to get even hotter. Suffice to say, no tie for me!!

      You'll probably want to wear one when you're looking for a new job though.

    I'm not 100% sure about this but by law, if the temperature reaches 40%, you are legally within your rights to go home. I'm not 100% if it's 40 or lower

      One of those urban legends I'm afraid. However the good news is that the threshold isn't a particular set temperature, rather the degree of risk to health and safety. Generally if your office is hitting forty degrees, and there's no air flow, then yeah, you're at significant risk of heat stroke and a manager should send everyone home. This could apply at lower temperatures as well, depending on the nature of the building, work, required uniforms, etc.

      Generally, the greater risk at times like this isn't necessarily the ambient temperature, rather the air flow. In a closed office building, no air con means no air flow, which can become a hazard relatively quickly. However in a small building with windows that can open, or where fans can be switched on, it's hard to state that you should be able to leave home at a certain temperature when that may mean leaving the office and going out into an environment which may potentially be less safe than the one you are leaving.

        It's not an urban legend. This guy at school, Barry, his dad was a doctor.... and he said it was true. We nearly had school cancelled several times due to the heat.
        But just to be clear the law says the temperature has to reach 45 degrees.... not 40 degrees.

          Schools are treated a little differently. But at 45 degrees, yeah, that's pretty much a guaranteed risk right there.

            My school will only close if it's a Code Red so temperature might come into it.

          Well if Barry's dad said it was true then that is good enough for me. I'm going home

          Yeah I remember getting a few days off high school for high temperatures.

        This is not an urban legend at all. I was working in a carpark at the Mater Hospital in Brisbane. My former employee had us working in a temporary plywood box of 10 foot by 8 foot with minimal ventilation and only one 'door' for people to pay money through while our usual airconditioned box was being rebuilt. In the middle of summer, our plywood 'box' who's only 'window' was less than 30cmx30cm got up to over 44 degrees celsius inside. I had no fan and no airconditioning and no access to any water. Within two hours on my second night working in this cardboard sweatbox, I nearly passed out and was taken to ICU for dehydration. The temperature inside was bad enough, coupled with the fumes from the cars, no proper ventilation and no circulating air, it was a nightmare.

        I belonged to the TWU (Transport workers union) rather than the AWU (who were in the Mater hospitals pocket), the TWU advised me to lock up as soon as it hit 36 degrees and stop work as my boss refused to supply me with a fan or air conditioning.

        I only had to do this twice, causing the hospital to lose over 2400 dollars over 2 nights due to their lack of OHS due to one idiotic manager before the hospital wisely brought down a portable aircon unit they had upstairs in storage. They also brought down a mini fridge for us to store jugs of water we filled up ourselves at the tap near the stairwell. That was perfectly acceptable by us. Amazes me this wasn't done in the first place honestly. Would've solved *all* problems in the first place. A little sensible forethought would've solved every single problem, but some people just want every single shortcut they can.

        So yeah, in short, there definitely *is* a cutoff temperature for working, but consult your union or see your employee contract/handbook/HR department first as it may be slightly different workplace to workplace.

        Last edited 15/01/14 2:44 pm

          No - as a number of people have stated - there is NO arbitrary figure - otherwise everyone working at the Australia Open currently would be sent home because the temperature on the court often exceeds 60 degrees - so the ball boys and girls would not be able to work there because of this arbitrary law.

          If you can find a single legislated reference to a defined temperature, at which time you can all go home - give us the proof. Working in H&S I guarantee you there is no defined number. Perhaps the TWU could tell you where they got the figure of 36 degrees from.

          But yes, at the Mater in Brisbane - you should have been provided a safe workplace and they clearly didn't. 36 degrees according to the TWU? Sorry but they simply pulled that from their bum - most of their members would work well in excess of those temperatures on a regular basis.

          Schools have a defined temperature - because surprisingly enough, children are not able to handle extremes of temperature as well as adults and we have an obligation to take care of them.

          I agree with finaldelerium - its about risk management

            Again, call your union, check the rules in regards to OHS. It's likely to be different job to job, some might, some might not. Depending if there's ventilation etc and if it's actually written into your contract or not. There is no singular rule governing one and all in this case, but there are conditions in contracts regarding particular jobs that come into play. I'm not about to listen to someone on the net when I can take the advice of a union rep :) So contact your union, hr, consult your contract etc. Ours was pretty specific dude, sorry.

            36 degrees according to the TWU? Sorry but they simply pulled that from their bum - most of their members would work well in excess of those temperatures on a regular basis.

            No doubt this was also taken into account with the fact there was no ventilation, no supplied fan, no airconditioning, no water etc and not merely 'pulled out their bum'.

            Last edited 15/01/14 3:36 pm

              I work for a union. Your situation seems to be a combination of factors, including lack of ventilation. Different unions do things differently. I would have told you to leave as soon as you started feeling unwell.

                Absolutely agreed. They would've taken all the factors into consideration. It's always best to ring your union instead of jumping the gun like most people tend to do.

                Last edited 16/01/14 10:15 am

    Call the local news station and give them a "tip-off"... they'll be happy for any heat-wave related news that doesn't feature a swimming pool or beach...

    Tell your boss what he's costs more. an office full of workers with reduced productivity due to heat. or an air conditioning unit....

    IInet just sent its entire staff in the melbourne building home due to the aircon failing! was very "cool of them" :P /pun

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