Doctors warn of health risks as air-conditioning office wars rage on

Setting indoor temperatures too low can hamper productivity and trigger colds, headaches and other illnesses

Air-conditioning settings can be detrimental to health, doctors say. Photo: Morsa Images
Powered by automated translation

It's the great office debate that has caused heated arguments in workplaces around the world for decades – what temperature should the air-conditioning be set to and who has their finger on the controls?

The subject continues to spark debate in the UAE even as summer comes to a close, with the mercury hovering just below 40°C on most days.

In 2019, a study published in the peer-reviewed journal, PLOS One, found the perfect temperature may be different for men and women.

More than 500 students took part in an experiment in which they were tested on maths, verbal and cognitive-reflection problems in rooms set at various temperatures between 16°C and 32°C.

Raising the temperature by one degree was linked to a 1.76 per cent increase in maths questions solved by women. The score of the men participating dropped by 0.63 per cent under the same conditions.

“What we found is it’s not just whether you feel comfortable or not, but that your performance on things that matter – in maths and verbal dimensions, and how hard you try – is affected by temperature,” said Agne Kajackaite, head of a research group at the Social Science Centre, told CNN at the time.

Health warning

Dr Basem Arnaout, a specialist in orthopaedic surgery at Burjeel Hospital in Al Ain, said switching from blazing outside heat to an icy office environment can affect health and well-being.

“Abrupt transitions from cold to warm environments can indeed impact the body, causing changes in muscle behaviour and affect a person's overall activity level," Dr Arnaout said.

“When temperatures drop below a certain range, it can reach a level that adversely affects the muscles and impairs blood circulation to these muscle groups. Veins and arteries need an appropriate temperature to efficiently transport blood throughout the body and reach the muscles."

He said if that is not possible a person will likely feel fatigue and exhaustion.

“Consequently, the extreme temperature difference poses the most substantial risk. It leads to various issues with nasal mucous membranes' secretion and creates a favourable environment for bacteria and viruses to enter the body, resulting in headaches, throat and tonsil inflammations, and colds."

He believes the ideal range for AC is between 25°C and 28°C.

Dubai Electricity and Water Authority advises householders to set their AC unit to no lower than 24°C to save on energy consumption.

Doctor's advice

Dr Amal Kamal, an ear, nose and throat specialist at Mediclinic Al Madar in Al Ain, agreed that it was important to limit the change in temperature from being outdoors to indoors.

“Firstly, adjusting the AC temperature is crucial. The disparity between indoor and outdoor temperatures should be minimised.

“Secondly, it's advisable not to direct the AC airflow directly towards the face and to maintain a distance of 1.5 to two metres between you and the AC unit."

He also offered general AC maintenance advice for when at home.

"Neglecting AC maintenance can lead to health issues caused by the contaminated air it circulates.”

David Mackenzie, group managing director of UAE recruitment agency Mackenzie Jones, said workers have a right to complain if the AC setting is affecting them, but he admits resolving the problem can be challenging.

“The common talking point across the world I think is the AC,” Mr MacKenzie said.

“Employees have the right to complain. The difficulty is that you have to be very aware that if you’ve got people in the office, every single person has a different view.

“So, for example, if you’re someone that gets cold very easily, we don’t take these people anywhere near an AC vent, they typically go and sit somewhere where there is no AC unit or output. So, you just need to be very clear with people about that.“

Wider concerns for the planet

Apart from causing friction at work, there are wider concerns over the use of air-conditioning and its effect on the environment.

The International Energy Agency predicts that the number of AC units in use around the world could increase by 244 per cent by 2050, as global temperatures rise.

Air conditioning has been blamed for creating 4 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions, according to researchers at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

It has led to calls for countries to adopt alternative methods to keep the heat at bay, from shaded windows to improved ventilation.

Air-conditioning in the UAE - in pictures

Updated: October 06, 2023, 6:00 PM