From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Revisited Study May Help Employers Meet the Workplace Thermostat Challenge

Summer or winter, some office workers will be fanning themselves while others are shivering. A line of research conducted some 20 years ago and revisited recently in The Washington Post, suggests their minds play a bigger role in their discomfort than the thermostat. The now venerable findings could help employers find ways to implement ergonomic strategies for meeting the thermostat challenge. A related study suggests they have much to gain if they make the effort.

A host of factors complicate the quest for ambient comfort. People experience temperature differently. The time of day is a factor. A change in the number of workers in a room, or even the building, can drive the temperature up or down. Poorly-constructed buildings are not rare, and they can be counted on for spots that defy the thermostat.

Research published by Cornell University in Ithica, New York, in November 2004, explained the thermostat challenge in economic terms. Led by Alan Hedge, Ph.D. CPE, the study found that when office temperatures dropped from 77 degrees to 68 degrees, workers typed only half as much and made more than twice as many errors. Dr. Hedge, Director of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory at Cornell, estimated the decreased productivity resulted in a 10 percent increase in labor costs per affected worker. The findings clearly struck a chord: the media jumped on the news. His interview for the Knight-Ridder News service ran in some 240 newspapers, and on many television and radio networks.

The 20-year-old investigation found people are not as sensitive to the temperature as they think they are. “There is a very large mental component to feeling hot,” psychologist William C. Howell told The Washington Post on August 14. Dr. Howell, the primary investigator in the early study and an adjunct psychology professor at Arizona State University, has focused on experiments to determine how accurate people are at telling what the temperature is and about when people feel comfortable.

In one experiment, Dr. Howell had two groups of volunteers describe how comfortable they were in a room. Then he called one group back a couple of days later, after he had raised the temperature by five degrees. He told the volunteers that he had lost their original answers, and quizzed them again about their perceptions of the temperature and their comfort.

With the second group, Dr. Howell held the temperature in the room steady but told the volunteers that it was warmer than on the first day. Again, he had them fill out questionnaires about perceived temperature and comfort.

Both groups reported exactly the same changes in perception of temperature and comfort; Dr. Howell’s suggestion to the second group that it was warmer seems to have had the same effect as actually making the room warmer.

The experiments do not mean people cannot tell the difference between 70 degrees and 110 degrees, The Washington Post article observed, but the experiments do indicate that for the kind of arguments people have all the time