When is it too cold to work?

When is it too cold to work?
January 25, 2024

As winter settles in, the challenge of working in cold conditions becomes a significant consideration in the professional landscape. Cold working environments raise concerns about employee well-being and potential violations of occupational health and safety standards.

But when is it too cold to work? Can employees simply stop working in such weather conditions?

The answer is no. But when the situation becomes too cold at work, employees are entitled to a number of protective measures. Employers are not always aware of their obligations in this regard and often have not conducted the required risk analysis.

1. Required minimum temperatures in closed working spaces

The minimum temperature for work in closed working spaces varies according to the type of work, ranging from very light work to very heavy work.

The qualification as (very) light or (very) heavy work is determined based on the physical workload of the work (measured in watts for a duration of 8 hours). Only the physical workload is taken into account here and not the mental burden of a job.

The measuring of the minimum temperatures takes place using a classic dry thermometer.

Minimum temperatures in closed workspaces are outlined in the Codex for well-being at work. The table below illustrates the minimum temperature for each type of work.

Type of workPhysical workload (in watts)Minimum temperatureExample
Very LightLess than 117 watts18°COffice work
Light117 to 234 watts16°CManual labour at a table
Semi-heavy235 to 360 watts14°CWork while standing
Heavy361 to 468 watts12°CPushing and pulling wheelbarrows
Very heavyMore than 468 watts10°CClimbing ladders and stairs

2. Which measures must the employer take?

Step 1: Risk analysis

Every employer must carry out a risk analysis of the workplace temperature and its possible impact on the work to be performed, and this happens at three levels: (i) at the level of the company as a whole, (ii) at the level of each group of workstations or functions and (iii) at the level of the individual employees.

In particular, the employer must consider the following factors:

  • the air temperature;
  • the relative humidity of the air;
  • air speed;
  • the thermal radiation due to the sun or technological conditions;
  • the physical workload;
  • the work methods and work equipment used;
  • the characteristics of the work clothing and PPE; and
  • the combination of all these factors.

As part of the risk analysis, the employer must evaluate the thermal environments and, if necessary, measure them. The measurement and calculation methods used must be determined after consultation with the prevention adviser-occupational physician or the prevention adviser occupational hygiene (who is part of the external service for prevention and protection at work) and after agreement with the committee for prevention and protection at work (or in its absence, the trade union delegation).

On the basis of this risk analysis, the employer determines appropriate prevention measures.

Step 2: Programme of technical and organisational measures

When the temperature is likely to drop below the defined minimum temperature, the employer must, beforehand and on the basis of the risk analysis, draw up a programme of technical and organisational measures to prevent or minimise exposure to cold and the resulting risks.

When drawing up the programme, the employer must consider different types of measures, such as:

  • technical measures responding to temperature and humidity;
  • reducing the physical workload by adapting work equipment or work methods;
  • limiting the duration and intensity of exposure;
  • adapting working time and working time schedules to reduce the duration of the workers’ exposure to cold;
  • providing protective clothing;
  • providing warm drinks.

This programme of technical and organisational measures must be submitted to the competent prevention advisers and to the committee for prevention and protection at work (or in its absence the trade union delegation) for their advice and must be added to the global prevention plan.

As soon as the temperature drops below the minimum temperature, the plan comes into effect and the envisaged measures must be rolled out.

Step 3: Measures that can be taken when the temperature drops below the minimum temperature

If the temperature drops below the minimum temperature,, then the employer must take measures, based on the programme of technical and organisational measures, so that employees are not exposed to the cold or that this exposure is limited to a minimum.

These measures may for instance include:

  • the provision of mobile heating devices;
  • the adjusting of working time schedules to reduce the time working in the cold;
  • have preparatory work carried out in a heated room wherever possible;
  • regular breaks in heated rooms;
  • the provision of warm clothing (e.g. gloves, insulated clothing, etc.);
  • the provision of free hot drinks.

3. Specific measures must be taken when working in open work spaces, in the open air or in refrigerated premises

In some situations, workers will, by nature, (sometimes) have to work at temperatures lower than the minimum temperatures defined above. This will be the case, for example, when working in refrigerated spaces or doing outdoor work in winter. In such cases, the employer must take specific measures.

3.1 Excessive cold that has a technological cause (e.g. refrigerated spaces)

Excessive cold that has a technological cause can, for instance, occur when workers have to work in refrigerated spaces. In such a case, the employer must take the following measures:

  • provide its workers with appropriate and adapted work clothing and personal protective equipment;
  • when workers are present, the airflow rate in these premises is restricted to the minimum level necessary for the operation of the machinery;
  • provide hot drinks free of charge to the workers;
  • provide technical means to dry protective clothing after it has been used;
  • when deemed necessary by the occupational physician, rest periods will be provided for.

3.2   Open work spaces and working in the open air

3.2.1 Heating devices

From 1 November to 31 March, heating devices are mandatory for open work spaces and outdoor spaces when required due to the weather conditions and in any case when the outside temperature is below 5°C.

With the prior agreement of the workers’ representatives in the committee for prevention and protection at work (or in its absence, the trade union delegation), these heating devices may be installed in closed premises, temporary constructions, or other locations to enable workers to warm up at particular intervals.

3.2.2 Specific rules for outdoor retail

In the case of temperatures between 5°C and 10 °C, specific restrictions apply when workers must perform work at counters situated outdoors and in close proximity to the shop:

  • the workers must have access to a sufficiently powerful heating system, unless measures are in place to ensure that the workers have regular and frequent breaks in a heated environment;
  • the workers should have a floor to avoid direct contact with the ground and should be shielded from adverse weather conditions to the extent possible;
  • they cannot work at such counters before 8 a.m. or after 7 p.m., and not for more than 2 consecutive hours without a break of at least one hour or for more than 4 hours per day.

In the case of temperatures below 5 °C, workers cannot be asked to work at such outdoor counters.

3.3 Medical checking

Workers who:

  • by virtue of their normal job performance are regularly exposed to cold with a temperature below 8° C for technological reasons; and
  • workers who are normally employed outdoors must have a medical check before the start of their employment and every year afterwards.

4. Informing and training the workers

Workers exposed to excessive cold (for weather or technological reasons) must receive information and training that includes:

  • the results of the risk analysis;
  • the measurement and exposure results;
  • the minimum temperatures (“action values”);
  • the prevention measures;
  • how to detect and report physical symptoms relating to excessive cold;
  • safe behaviour; and
  • medical surveillance.

5. Temporary unemployment scheme

If it is impossible for blue-collar workers to start their work due to the cold, employers may submit a request for temporary unemployment due to bad weather to the Unemployment Office (ONEM/RVA).

Weather conditions must be such as to make it impossible to perform the work. The introduction of such a regime is not permitted when the cold only hinders the performance of the work or reduces productivity. For example, if it is so cold that concrete cannot dry and the relevant materials cannot be worked with, then it will be admissible to put blue-collar workers on temporary unemployment.

In these cases, the temperatures must be low and persistent. The ONEM/RVA ultimately decides whether the temperatures are low enough to prevent such work happening.

Written by

  • Esther Soetens

    Counsel

  • Valérie Schouteden

    Associate

Recommended articles

March 29, 2024

From 1 April 2024 employers are obliged to pay a contribution to the Back to Work Fund in the case of medical force majeure

From 1 April 2024, an employer establishing the termination of an employment contract for ‘medical force majeure’ will have to notify a new 'Back to Work Fund' (Fund).

Read on
January 10, 2024

Employers, be aware of the “hidden protection period” kick-off!

The “hidden protection period” is one of the most remarkable features of the social elections process. The hidden protection period is the period during which candidates already benefit from the specific dismissal protection, even though the candidate lists are only being disclosed to the employer 65 days later.

Read on
December 13, 2023

WEBINAR VIDEO | Help… am I still up-to-date with the current trends in labour law?

During this webinar, we guide you through 2023’s highlights, so that you can start 2024 well-prepared and fully-informed.

Read on