It's that time of year when the song "Baby It's Cold Outside" melodically plays in my mind (imagine the Lady Gaga and Tony Bennet rendition). During the holiday season the song tends to play everywhere we go. But, this isn't the only reason I've had this catchy tune on my mind. With the arrival of winter, JAN customers have questions about accommodating employees with disabilities who are sensitive to cold temperatures. Interestingly though, questions sometimes focus on accommodating employees who are impacted by exposure to cold indoor temperatures.
Thermostat wars are a common ongoing battle in the office. You’ve experienced it, right? Co-workers stealthily sneaking around the corner, adjusting the heat up or down to their comfort level when no one else is watching. It’s probably fair to say that there is no particular temperature that is comfortable for everyone. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not regulate indoor workplace temperature but does recommend that temperatures be maintained in the range of 68-76° F. This range may be comfortable for many workers, but not all. Although this indoor temperature range is suggested, some workplaces maintain indoor temperatures (in cool and warm months) that fall well below 68° (I’ve heard as low as 61°), making it a frigid environment, particularly for those who are medically sensitive to cold temperatures.
Sensitivity to cold temperatures is a limitation associated with a number of impairments, including anemia, asthma, diabetes, Raynaud’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, and thyroid disorders. Some individuals with these types of impairments experience joint pain, stiffness, or numbness in their extremities (i.e., hands, fingers, toes) in response to cold temperatures, while others experience difficulty breathing. Exposure to cold temperatures at work can cause these symptoms to flare-up, making it difficult for an affected employee to perform job duties. This can lead to a request for accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
One solution for dealing with the effects of the cold indoors is a small space heater to be used at an employee’s workstation. JAN Consultants are frequently asked if an employer has any obligation to provide a space heater as an accommodation for an employee who requests one due to a medical impairment. This isn’t about providing a space heater simply to improve personal comfort, but rather, to enable an employee to manage the impact of the cold on their impairment, and in-turn, performance. Some employers provide space heaters to employees for non-disability related reasons, or allow employees to bring their own heaters to work. But, is there a duty to provide a space heater as an accommodation under the ADA? Or, is a space heater a personal need item?
In situations where the temperature is extreme, it could possibly be argued that if the employer is creating a workplace barrier by maintaining an indoor temperature that 1) falls below the minimum suggested standard, and 2) has an adverse effect on an employee’s medical impairment and ability to perform job duties, then the employer may have some responsibility to provide a reasonable accommodation to eliminate that barrier – this could include providing a space heater. If a healthcare provider can confirm the existence of an impairment and that the extreme temperature of the work environment causes limitations that affect performance, then there will be medical justification for the accommodation.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has stated that, in some situations, items that might otherwise be considered personal may be required as reasonable accommodations where they are required to meet job-related rather than personal needs (EEOC, 2002). While a space heater may seem like a personal need item, when it is needed to help an employee perform job duties effectively, it may be a reasonable accommodation. It often makes sense to err on the side of caution, do a risk analysis, and use common sense when considering accommodations. At a cost of about $30.00 for a small space heater, it may be difficult to demonstrate that this low-cost solution is not reasonable. And, it’s certainly a lot less expensive to provide the accommodation than to deal with a disability discrimination complaint alleging failure to provide a reasonable accommodation.
In addition to a space heater, there are other accommodations that might be considered to manage the cold indoors. Some ideas can be found on JAN’s AskJAN.org website under A-Z, by limitation, temperature sensitivity, but consider the following:
- Adjust work-site temperature
- Redirect or cover air vents using air deflectors or vent covers
- Do not situate workstation under air vents, near cold windows, or near opening exterior doors
- Move workstation to warmer area of building
- Use window insulation, rubber weather sealing, heavy curtains, or shades on windows to reduce draft
- Provide an enclosed workspace with separate temperature control
- Allow use of heated blanket, heating pad, hand warmers, etc.
- Use heated ergonomic and computer equipment (e.g., heated mouse, heated seat cushion)
- Modify dress code to allow wearing of layers, gloves, outerwear, etc.
- Provide speech recognition software to limit keyboarding
- Allow flexible scheduling
- Allow flexible use of leave
- Allow work from home or an alternate (warmer) location
Accommodation needs and situations vary. If you have a specific situation or question you’d like to discuss with a JAN consultant, we’ll be happy to assist you. Contact us directly or visit AskJAN.org.
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (2002). Enforcement guidance on Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Retrieved from http://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/accommodation.html