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Thermal comfort in offices

Thermal comfort is a very personal thing. People can experience discomfort from being too hot or too cold in the office environment and it may not be possible to ensure every worker is feeling comfortable all the time.

Optimum comfort for sedentary work is generally between 20 and 26°C.

Tips

  • Be prepared for varying temperatures, which can include wearing layers of clothing.
  • Advise the workplace of known allergies.
  • Use exhaust fans if there is no air conditioning system.

Potential harm

  • Discomfort and fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Musculoskeletal disorders

Identified hazards and controls

Discomfort from being too hot or too cold

Cause

Thermal comfort is influenced by:

  • clothing
  • job being undertaken
  • air temperature
  • humidity
  • air flow
  • level of physical exertion
  • sun penetration
  • radiant temperature
  • the time of year
  • building elements, such as which direction the building faces, window furnishings and window thickness.

Any one of these factors or even a combination of factors can cause workers to feel uncomfortable, and it may not be easy to work out the cause.

What workers can do

  • Pay attention to when and where you notice hot or cold conditions—there may be a pattern.
  • Report unusually hot or cold temperatures as there may be a fault with the air conditioning system.
  • Be prepared for temperature to vary—keep a spare jumper, coat or wrap at work.
  • Keep hydrated—air conditioning can remove the moisture from your skin and body.
  • Personal heaters are not recommended in open office environments.
    The use of personal heaters in an air-conditioned area where people are experiencing discomfort may exacerbate the situation. The heat generated can interfere with the automatic control of the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. For example, the thermostat may falsely sense that the room is too hot, thereby increasing the cool air supplied to the room.

What employers can do

  • Track reports of air conditioning issues to see if there is a noticeable trend or a particular location with complaints.
  • Work with the building maintenance team to action complaints. It might not be the temperature that is the problem but the humidity levels or air movement contributing to the problem.
  • Manage the situation by providing alternatives such as small electric desk fans for personal use. Personal heaters are not recommended in open office environments as they can exacerbate issues. The heat generated can interfere with the automatic control of the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. For example, a personal heater may cause the thermostat to falsely sense that the room is too hot, thereby increasing the cool air supplied to the room.
  • Other workplace factors to consider include:
    • level of physical activity in workers performing the tasks
    • the temperature in the work area
    • whether the work performed involves safety critical tasks such as operating machinery or handling chemicals
    • specific individual needs, such as those arising from medical conditions.

Fatigue

Cause

Fatigue can result if workers are exposed to warmer temperatures causing them to tire more quickly and increasing their susceptibility to injury.

What workers can do

  • Be aware of your level of alertness and the type of work you are doing.
  • Report tiredness to your supervisor.
  • Take a break.

What employers can do

  • Respond to reports of temperature variation and investigate causes.
  • Provide alternate duties if conditions cannot be improved.
  • Have policies in place for fatigue management.

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs)

Cause

  • Exposure to cold temperatures. 

    In general, when it is too cold, or when we touch cold materials, our hands can become numb. With numbed hands, we are more likely to misjudge the amount of force required to do our work. A cold environment also makes our bodies less flexible. Every movement we make and every position we hold takes more work, and then MSDs are more likely to develop (source CCOHS website).

What workers can do

  • Report discomfort to your supervisor.
  • Temporarily add layers of clothing. Personal heaters are not recommended in open office environments as they can confuse thermostats for heating, air-conditioning and ventilation systems.
  • Have a hot drink.

What employers can do

  • Respond to reports of temperature variation and investigate the causes.
  • Provide alternate duties if conditions cannot be improved.
  • Consider if there are workstations available in another warmer area of the building that people can be temporarily moved to.

Allergies from odours, mould, fungi and bacteria

Cause

Allergies can be triggered by many things and can manifest in sneezing, skin irritation, and asthma. In severe cases, allergies can trigger an anaphylactic response.

What workers can do

  • Avoid adding odours to the air, such as fragrance oils and incense, as these can travel through the air conditioning system to other parts of the building.
  • Be alert to what you are cooking in the kitchen and that food smells might travel. If an exhaust fan is installed, use it to remove odours.
  • Make kitchens allergy-free zones. If someone in the office has a seafood allergy, for example, then the kitchen may need to be a seafood-free area.
  • Report any water leaks or areas of damp to your property management team.

What employers can do

  • Where air quality factors are identified as a problem, get them measured by an appropriately qualified person and take action as recommended.
  • Adequately ventilate workplaces. Fresh, clean air should be drawn from outside, uncontaminated by discharge from flues or other outlets, and be circulated through the workplace.
  • Ensure the air-conditioning system:
    • provides a comfortable environment in relation to air temperature, humidity and air movement
    • prevents the excessive accumulation of odours
    • reduces the levels of respiratory by-products, especially carbon dioxide, and other indoor contaminants that may arise from work activities
    • supplies an amount of fresh air to the workplace, exhausts some of the stale air, and filters and recirculates some of the indoor air.
  • Ensure natural ventilation consists of permanent openings, including windows and doors, that:
    • in total are the size of at least five per cent of the floor area of the room
    • are open to the sky, an open covered area or an appropriately ventilated adjoining room
    • may be assisted by mechanical ventilation.
  • The building is adequately cleaned, such as carpets vacuumed, and dust removed regularly.

Harmful levels of atmospheric contaminant

Cause

  • Excessive use of printers and photocopiers.
  • Cleaning fluids used by cleaners.

What workers can do

  • If you are a smoker, make sure you do not smoke near air intakes for buildings.
  • Switch on the exhaust fan in the print room, if you have one, or leave large print jobs to print unsupervised and don’t stand around the printer waiting for the print job to complete.

What employers can do

  • Ensure air-conditioning and other ventilation systems are regularly serviced and maintained in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. Cooling towers that form part of many air-conditioning systems may be a favourable environment for Legionella bacteria if they are not properly designed and maintained. Exposure to these bacteria can cause the potentially fatal Legionnaire’s disease.
  • Check that cleaning fluids used by cleaners are non-toxic and fit for purpose.
Page last reviewed: 03 May 2021

Comcare (Office Safety tool)
GPO Box 9905, Canberra, ACT 2601
1300 366 979 | www.comcare.gov.au

Date printed 29 Jun 2022

https://www.comcare.gov.au/office-safety-tool/spaces/work-areas/thermal-comfort