Back in the day, before political correctness reared its sometimes ugly head, feds who were hot under the collar had a way out: An escape hatch. This was a time before most government buildings had central air conditioning, and windows that actually opened.
When things got sticky hot, whether it was DC, Oklahoma City, New York or St. Louis, employees with special equipment would come around and measure the heat and humidity levels in the office. It was known as the Misery Index. If it hit certain levels, employees in that office, perhaps the entire floor, maybe even the whole building, could be sent home.
Back in 1994 I wrote a column for The Washington Post recalling, fondly, the days of the Misery Index. I updated it again in June, 2010 after one of our first hot spells.
We asked long-time feds if they remembered it and what the exact numbers were: We were swamped. Turns out the magic numbers that could lead to early dismissal were a temperature of 95, humidity 55; temp 96, humidity 52; 97-49 and so on. A lot of places would have topped that over the past few weeks.
If you long for the good old days, check out these e-mails from feds who remember the joys and sorrow of being in heat at the office:
“I’m a long-time (39 years) fed who worked in a shop environment back in the ’70s for DoD. I remember the numbers quite vividly: a minimum temperature of 95 combined with a humidity reading of 55% would give your managers the ability to release you from work. Just to clarify what normally happened was we kept working. One day someone from the environmental folks downtown sent an engineer out to White Oak, Md. where our lab was located. He found temps of 105 and humidity of 58. As he stood there in his Bermuda shorts and tank top he told the boss he didn’t think it was too uncomfortable to work. After we were told what he said he made a quick exit from our shop before things got hotter! Mick McDonald
“I’ll bet if you could canvas your readers to look in a still existing copy of the ‘old’ Federal Personnel Manual (FPM) that the temperature limits would be in there … everything else certainly was. I know that some ‘old timers’ like me and those I used to work for did not destroy the FPM when the Clinton/Gore regime was “reinventing” government. Really enjoy your articles and encourage my staff to subscribe to your column. Thanks for still doing such a great job on a daily basis.” Sandy at VA
“Prior to the advent of air conditioning, the Diplomatic Services of many countries considered Washington, D.C. a hardship post.” Heinrich E.
“I’ve enjoyed and learned from your columns. I’m sure you are overrun with information but for a chuckle. I’ve included OPM’s June 1981 letter to Department Heads on Hot or Cold Working Conditions which updates the 1948 policy since “air conditioning, as well as proper heating, is commonplace.”, your July 1983 article on “Federal Policy on Hot Air Obscured by Haze”, GSA’s December 1983 GSA Order on “Hot Weather Dismissals”, and your March 1990 article on “A Beef About Roasting. Some things never change.” Eileen V.
The misery index has long been retired. But individual agency heads have the authority to let workers go home early for a variety of reasons, including indoor heat and humidity.
Nearly Useless Factoid
Quit your sweatin’ — it could be worse! A study by the University of Montana found the place with the single highest “land skin” temperature was the Lut Desert in Iran with a measurement of 159.3 F (70.7 C) in 2005.
2012 Causey Awards Federal News Radio has announced the winners of the third annual Causey Awards, recognizing human-resources professionals who have gone above and beyond to help the government operate better.