Thermal comfort and air quality in offices

This guidance can help employers ensure they provide good air quality and thermal comfort for employees working in offices.

What is thermal comfort?

Thermal comfort is a term which describes a person’s satisfaction with their thermal environment. In other words, feeling neither hot nor cold. Thermal comfort at work has many influences, including clothing, the nature of the work, temperature, sun penetration, humidity and air flow.

Thermal comfort or discomfort in an office is not necessarily a risk but is likely to affect productivity. Thermal comfort is different from heat illness, which occurs when the body cannot sufficiently cool itself and requires immediate medical treatment. For information about heat illness, refer to WorkSafe's Working in Heat guidance.

There are considerable differences between people regarding what is comfortable and it is unlikely that a single temperature or level of humidity will suit everybody.

The best temperature is the temperature that most people find comfortable. Optimum comfort for sedentary work is between 20°C and 26°C, depending on the time of the year and clothing worn. Employees undertaking work requiring physical exertion usually prefer a lower temperature range.

Workplaces that are buildings need to be capable of maintaining a temperature range that is comfortable and suitable to the work. Workplace temperatures that are too high or too low can contribute to fatigue, heat illness and cold-related medical conditions.

Identifying thermal comfort issues

To identify thermal comfort issues in office environments, ask the employees working in the area a series of questions such as:

  • do you find the atmosphere hot, cold, stuffy or draughty?
  • when do you notice these conditions?
  • what effect do these conditions have on your work?
  • how do you deal with them?
  • where do you notice these conditions?

Assessing thermal comfort issues

In cases where employees have identified problems with thermal comfort, an appropriately qualified person should assess thermal comfort issues. Employers should develop control measures in consultation with employees and any health and safety representatives (HSRs).

Controlling thermal comfort

The working environment and weather will affect thermal comfort but general suggestions for improving temperatures and air quality include:

  • air conditioning regulated for temperature and humidity
  • fans
  • electric heating
  • open windows
  • layout and location of work stations
  • installing deflectors on air vents to direct airflow away from people and help prevent staff being annoyed by draughts
  • controlling direct sunlight and radiant heat with blinds, louvres and window treatments
  • minimising draughts and thermal differences between employees' heads and feet
  • ensuring adequate air flow
  • work and rest regimes

Air quality in offices

How to comply

Employers should ensure workplaces that are buildings provide:

  • natural ventilation
  • mechanical ventilation or air conditioning
    • which complies with Australian Standard AS 1668.2-2012, where applicable

Natural ventilation needs to consist of permanent openings such as windows and doors which:

  • in total are the size of at least 5% of the floor area of the room
  • are open to the sky, an open covered area or an appropriately ventilated adjoining room

In enclosed workplaces, employers should ensure comfortable rates of air movement, usually between 0.1m and 0.2m per second.

It is also important to make sure all heating and cooling facilities are serviced regularly and maintained in a safe condition.

Hazardous airborne particles

In some workplaces, ventilation and air quality are more than issues of comfort. Hazardous airborne particles can result from some work processes, such as those involving biological materials, lead, asbestos or chemicals. In meeting their duties to eliminate or reduce hazards and risks from airborne particles, employers must consult the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017 (OHS Regulations). Where applicable, employers must also comply with the requirements of the Health (Legionella) Regulations 2001 to maintain, inspect and test air conditioning and warm water systems.

Australian Standards contain guidelines on appropriate air quality standards for buildings, in particular AS 1668.2-2012 The use of ventilation and air conditioning in buildings – mechanical ventilation in buildings.

Your legal duties

The Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act) requires employers to provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to health, including psychological health, so far as reasonably practicable. This responsibility includes providing and maintaining safe systems of work and an obligation to consult with employees and HSRs on matters that directly affect or are likely to affect their health or safety.

Employees also have duties under the OHS Act to take reasonable care for their own health and safety, the health and safety of people in the workplace and to co-operate with their employer.

Find out more about office work and your legal obligations on the WorkSafe website page, The risk management approach to health and safety. A link to the page appears in Related information.

Further information

Legislation Victoria

  • Building (Legionella) Act 2000
  • Health (Legionella) Regulations 2001

Australian Standards

  • AS 1668.2-2012 The use of ventilation and air conditioning in buildings, Part 2: Mechanical ventilation in buildings

Comcare

  • Approved Code of Practice on indoor air quality