Personal preparation for cold winter working is always a priority, then considering the wider winter working environment is an important further step. Jon Herbert runs through the checklist for employers.
Like many other aspects of hands-on management, good winter health and safety practice at work is often based on well-applied common sense. However, common sense is not always common practice. Otherwise, there would almost certainly be fewer work incidents, accidents and fatalities.
Unfortunately, winter conditions can turn small hazards into larger hazards. Ensuring that good practice is actually being carried out is time seldom wasted.
The immediate welfare of outdoor employees must always be a priority, with prevention often the best form of protection. Rescheduling outside tasks, running risk assessment for cold conditions, checking for new hazards and taking care that adequate PPE — including eye protection and suitable gloves — is provided and used, are high on the list.
The correct clothing, training and teamwork are essential, as are rest breaks and hot calorific food and drinks.
With those basics in place, any prolonged bad weather before spring 2018 eventually blooms could make it even more important for managers to look closely at broader aspects of safe work places.
Wider winter concerns
Morale: Plunging temperatures, short days, blinding light from the low winter sun, and for many people seasonal affective disorder (SAD) sometimes known as “winter depression” — can sap morale, focus and concentration when driving at a grey time of year.
Absenteeism: For many employers, health-related absenteeism is also a pressing issue, even though statistically employees now take less time off due to ill health than in previous years. It is also worth noting that the medical journal, The Lancet, finds that 77% of flu carriers show no clear symptoms.
Therefore, coercing staff back to work when they genuinely feel ill can be counterproductive because of cross-infection risks. Staying warm at home for at least 24 hours is advised.
Office environment: Linked with this, office heating is often important. Cold offices can be a hazard and demoralising. Stuffy overheated offices are uncomfortable and unproductive.
Following Government guidelines for an ambient temperature of 16°C+, plus asking staff regularly how they feel, is usually a better strategy.
Carbon monoxide: It is important to remember that, during the winter months, gas boilers and fires, wood burners and other types of fuel-burning appliances must be maintained properly to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. The HSE reports that each year some 11 people die as a result of poorly operating appliances and bad ventilation.
Smart options: For many companies, the benefits of smart heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems save money by ensuring a comfortable environment all year round, especially during the false starts and stops of fickle British winters.
In winter’s grip
However, many ordinary hazards are exacerbated in winter conditions, particularly slips and trips.
Falls are the most common type of accident in life generally, but can become worse when winter bites. Often the result is little more than light bruising. However, each year, many thousands of people are also taken to hospital with more serious injuries; the 2014/15 total was 2919. Sturdy footwear can be part of the answer. However, there are wider opportunities to manage the internal and outdoor routes that workers use regularly.
Lighting and leaves: Reduced daylight and wet leaves are a bad combination, and especially when ice and snow make the situation worse. Is there adequate lighting for staff to see their way? Leaves can hide other hazards. If necessary, it can be good policy to remove offending trees and bushes completely.
Rain: Rainwater is another potential winter problem. External paved areas should be fitted with slip-resistant materials. Rain, grass and dirt also don’t mix well. Taking shortcuts should be discouraged in the wet; alternatively, converting existing shortcuts into proper paths can be a responsible response. Wherever new paths are being laid out, it is good practice to study how walkers are most likely to try to move about. Putting paths where people actually want to go is the practical answer.
Building entrances: Another bad combination, especially in winter, is wet building entrances where walkers paddle rainwater, snow or slush onto internal surfaces. Installing good-sized and well-positioned canopies may solve the problem. Other options are to fit large absorbent mats or changing entrance flooring for something with a non-slip surface.
Snow, frost and ice
Slip risks on cold compounded ice and snow are generally more dangerous than on water or fresh snow. The most effective management tool is, as always, prevention. Start by identifying icy area most likely to be used by pedestrians, eg entrances, car parks, shortcuts, slopes and shaded or continuously wet stretches.
Weather forecasts: Whenever the temperature drops — and this can be checked in advance through the Met Office or Highways England websites — it is important to put down grit, salt or direct walkers to safer routes and areas. If budgets allow, covered walkways are effective, especially where employees move frequently in ordinary clothes.
Signage: Smart signs are now also available that show warnings when the temperature drops below safe levels. Conventional signs are also effective, but if left in place permanently staff will begin to ignore them. The same applies to safety warning cones.
Gritting: Spreading salt or grit is relatively cheap, swift and easy, although as a method it is less effective on compacted ice and snow and does take time to promote thawing. Gritting is needed before ice and snow arrive; it should also be put down when walkways are damp or wet. Early evenings before frost settles and early mornings before staff arrive are prime gritting times.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) is keen to stress the dangers and priorities of safe winter driving. It points out that periods of prolonged snow are actually safer overall as fewer vehicles and people use the roads. However, the individual traveller is still at risk. Department for Transport 2014 figures show that 251 people were seriously injured and 2274 slightly injured in reported ice and snow road accidents.
Is it necessary? RoSPA advices employers to have a winter driving policy in place that questions whether journeys are really necessary in severe conditions and instructs drivers to take positive notice of any national and local travel warnings, terminating existing journeys if that is safest.
Winterising vehicles: Before venturing out, vehicles should be prepared properly for winter; a good practice tip is to encourage employees to take similar care of their own vehicles.
Things to avoid: Even when conditions are acceptable, certain priorities must be followed. These include journey planning; avoiding difficult rural routes for example, avoiding or taking special care at hazards such as accident “black spots” and steep hills, being aware of ungritted roads, plus routes exposed to high winds that can blow over high-sided vehicles; and trying to avoid peak traffic times.
Don’t overdo it: It is important that drivers take enough rest stops to stay alert in stressful conditions, check and recheck traffic and weather bulletins, and keep to speed limits. Allowing extra journey time also takes the pressure off hard winter driving.
Emergencies: Understand, review and, if necessary, update emergency arrangements.
RoSPA’s Winter Driving Hub carries detailed advice on how to stay safe during the coldest months.
Published by Croneri on 24 January 2018