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The Boston Globe

Thermostat wars bring tense climate

Conflicts over air conditioning, heat common in nation's offices

By Joan Axelrod-Contrada, Globe Correspondent, 7/11/04

Globe Staff Photo/David L. Ryan
At Topaz Partners, a Malden public relations agency, co-workers Diane Reid and Adam Zand don't react the same to the office environment: She is often wrapped in a blanket, while he's in shorts and a T-shirt.

Globe Staff Photo/
Office attire at Topaz Partners in Malden -- for a group of co-workers who say they have wildly different temperature sensibilities -- ranges from shorts to blankets to coats. According to a 2003 survey, complaints about heat and cold top the list among office workers.

Some like it hot.

Others prefer a nice, cool, air-conditioned office. With summer on the sizzle, the air-conditioning wars are heating up.

When it comes to temperature, weary office managers know there's no pleasing everyone. Worker laments of ''it's too hot'' or ''it's too cold'' topped a list of the 10 most common office complaints in a 2003 survey by the International Facilities Management Association. And while the Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends an indoor environment of 68 to 76 degrees Fahrenheit, the federal agency does not regulate office temperature.

''Office temperature and humidity conditions are generally a matter of human comfort rather than hazards that could cause death or serious physical harm,'' explains an OSHA memo.

The seasonal struggle between the ''hots'' and the ''colds'' can take on epic proportions as workers struggle to control the thermostat. Dial it down, and some complain the office is as cold as a meat locker. Dial it up, and others grumble it's more like a sauna.

In some workplaces, it becomes a battle of the sexes. ''The males here turn the AC down to freezing and so the girls have to turn the temperature up,'' said Connacht O'Doherty-Popp of Lynn, a 23-year-old customer service worker for a Weymouth company. ''The battle continues all day long.''

But a psychologist says the need to rule the thermostat is more about exerting a modicum of control in an often stressful work environment.

''It's the perception of control, rather than the real or actual control, which enables people to withstand stress and discomfort,'' said Bruce Katcher, an industrial/organizational psychologist and president of Discovery Surveys Inc. of Sharon. ''Studies show that humans and animals are able to withstand higher levels of shock and pain if they feel in control of it.''

How these battles are resolved varies. At Topaz Partners, a small public relations agency in Malden, four workers have good-naturedly dubbed themselves the ''cold warriors'' and the ''blanket brigade.'' Adam Zand and Paula Slotkin like the office on the chilly side; co-workers Diane Reid and Hope Kercher wear lap blankets.

''I tend to go to sleep if it gets too warm,'' said Zand, a 39-year-old account director. ''Being a little chilled makes me concentrate and focus and not get all dreamy.''

The office temperature is normally set at 70 degrees. That's sometimes too warm for Zand. When he turns up the AC, Reid and Kercher get out their blankets. Sometimes they wear them as shawls. But, if they get too uncomfortable, they'll turn down the air conditioning. If they do, Zand will leave it alone. Zand, who often wears shorts and T-shirts to work, said he doesn't want his co-workers to suffer.

It was Kercher, the firm's 28-year-old marketing manager, who brought in the first lap blanket. That inspired Reid, 26, an account executive, to follow suit. ''It's kind of a joke that I have my 'blankie,'?'' Kercher said.

Elsewhere, human resources managers opt for other measures to resolve conflicts. At B.L. Makepeace Inc. in Brighton, employees in the main office get space heaters if they're cold and desk fans if they're hot. The company also purchased ceiling fans and heavy plastic stripping for its warehouse to keep employees there from sweltering while packing up paper, printers, and other products.

''Everyone has a different comfort level with hot and cold,'' said Makepeace's human resources manager, Robin Lucier. ''Whenever someone is warm, someone else is cold. That's just the nature of it. We try to make it as comfortable as we can for everyone.'' Having heaters and fans has ''added a lot of value,'' said Lucier, who tried putting tape on the thermostat to keep it at 70 degrees, till someone ripped it off.

William Fisk, senior staff scientist at the Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., said most studies indicate a slight drop in productivity when office temperature exceeds 77 degrees. Studies also show that workers in offices with high temperatures report more adverse health symptoms such as irritation of eyes, nose, or throat, Fisk said.

Hot offices can be particularly problematic for people with underlying medical conditions or jobs involving a great deal of activity. ''It depends on humidity and temperature factors and also underlying physical and medical conditions,'' said Dr. Lewis Pepper, assistant professor of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health.

Although OSHA does not regulate temperature, it does investigate employee complaints. Fred Malaby, an industrial hygienist in its New England office, said workers need to suffer from serious problems such as heatstroke for the agency to fine the employer. Once, Malaby tested himself to see if an office that was 85 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit qualified as being dangerous.

Malaby said he felt awful, ''but it wasn't even close to the dangerous level.''

Christine Wheelock of Northampton said she once worked as a medical receptionist in an office that had no air conditioning vents in her area. The minute she and a co-worker would turn up the air conditioning, patients and doctors would complain that they were too cold. She tried using a desk fan but found it made the print on her computer all wavy.

''We would say if you don't get it fixed, we'll come in in our bikinis,'' said Wheelock, 38. ''They'd just laugh. They knew we wouldn't do it.''

Newer offices tend to have fewer problems with air conditioning, said Kate Thibeault, a certified facilities manager for Pearson Education, an educational publisher with offices in Boston and Needham. That's due in part to computer technologies and energy-saving measures that have revolutionized the field.

In older buildings, it's a different story. But some air-conditioning problems are relatively easy to fix. ''If someone's too cold, it could be that there's too much air movement,'' said Glenn Friedman of Alameda, Calif., who has written about air conditioning for the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers. ''Typically, that's a simple adjustment.''

Sometimes, employers can get building owners to pay for improvements. Often, though, companies use their own budgets to improve conditions.

Thibeault's employer owns some properties and rents others. In the case of the rental properties, Thibeault negotiates a set temperature that's in the lease.

''What landlords try to do is get us to agree to colder in the wintertime and hotter in the summertime,'' said Thibeault. ''Anything up to 84 or down to 62 is acceptable. We try to minimize the gap if possible.''

To persuade upper management to spend money on air conditioning, Thibeault analyzes problematic areas of the office. How many staffers are affected? Has the area seen a lot of reconfigurations over the years? Then she presents a case showing the cost versus the benefit of the proposed spending. She builds a strong case for employee comfort, telling employers that they'll be ''behind the curve'' if they do not do what it takes to make employees happy.

However, Thibeault does not believe in giving employees control of the thermostat. This, she said, creates too many problems.

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