Hot news: The best workplace temperature is warm or cold

Published: Thursday, Sept. 20 2012 12:49 p.m. MDT

OSHA recommends temperature control in the range of 68-76 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity control in the range of 20 to 60 percent.

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You sit at your cubicle and the temperature is perfect — that is until the worker near you turns on her under-the-desk 1950s era space heater and blasts you with a tropical heat wave worthy of an Al Gore documentary.

"It's too cold" versus "It's too hot" seems to be a never-ending battle in the workplace. Studies say they have the answer — and some countries even have passed laws dictating where the thermostat should be set.

Fans of the cold will like the study that came from the cool minds of the Helsinki University of Technology and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory: "In this study, we focused on the effects of temperature on performance at office work. … The results show that performance increases with temperature up to 21-22 Celsius (69.8 to 71.6 degrees Fahrenheit), and decreases with temperature above 23-24 Celsius (73.4 to 75.2 degrees Fahrenheit). The highest productivity is at temperature of around 22 Celsius (71.6 degrees Fahrenheit)."

Gaebler.com's "Resources for Entrepreneurs" took the Helsinki study and declared a solution: "For business owners who are tired of workers complaining about the temperature, set the office thermostat to 71.6 degrees and say, 'The office temperature argument is officially over. We are setting the office temperature at the optimal temperature for the business, based on science. Now go back to work!’ ”

So everything was settled until Cornell University decided to get in on the act and do its own study: "At 77 degrees Fahrenheit, the workers were keyboarding 100 percent of the time with a 10 percent error rate, but at 68 degrees, their keying rate went down to 54 percent of the time with a 25 percent error rate," said Alan Hedge, professor of design and environmental analysis and director of Cornell's Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory. "Temperature is certainly a key variable that can impact performance."

According to Forbes, the results surprised Hedge: "Hedge placed the temperature in the low 70s in the winter, basing the temperature on standards set by the American Society for Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers; they say 76 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal in summer, and 72 in the winter. 'We expected that when you cool people down, they work harder and better,' (Hedge told Forbes), 'We found the exact opposite. When it was cool to colder in the office, people did less work and made more mistakes.’ ”

Fast Company liked the Cornell study: "(It) makes sense. When our body's temperature drops, we expend energy keeping ourselves warm, making less energy available for concentration, inspiration, and insight."

The Society for Human Resource Management quoted a CareerBuilder survey that found 22 percent of workers say "a too-hot workplace makes it difficult to concentrate at work." The study also said 11 percent of workers said chilly workplaces make it hard to work."

So if workers and studies can't agree, maybe it is time for the government to step in.

The U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration doesn't have any rules on temperature, but does have a few ideas: "OSHA recommends temperature control in the range of 68-76 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity control in the range of 20 to 60 percent."

The U.K., however, has no qualms about setting temperature guidelines. The U.K.'s Health and Safety Executive states: "The law does not state a minimum temperature, but the … temperature in workrooms should normally be at least 16 degrees Celsius unless much of the work involves severe physical effort in which case the temperature should be at least 13 degrees Celsius (55.4 degrees Fahrenheit). These temperatures may not, however, ensure reasonable comfort, depending on other factors such as air movement and relative humidity."

Ontario, Canada's Ministry of Labor says, "The regulations set a minimum temperature of 18 degrees Celsius (64.4 degrees Fahrenheit), subject to some exemptions for things like work outdoors or in freezers."

New Zealand's Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment talks about thermal comfort and says that when "most people will be thermally comfortable" is, in summer, 66.2 to 57.2 degrees Fahrenheit and, in winter, 64.4 to 71.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

In other words, studies say the optimum temperature for productivity is either 71.6 degrees Fahrenheit or 77 degrees Fahrenheit. If you let government set the thermostat, it could range from 55.4 to 71.6 degrees.

Which leads us to an observation about the arguments over temperature and productivity made at Gaebler.com's "Resources for Entrepreneurs": "In fact, the biggest productivity loss may be the discussion itself."

EMAIL: mdegroote@desnews.com

Twitter: @degroote

Facebook: facebook.com/madegroote

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