Cold Weather and the Workplace
Central to dealing with cold weather Health and Safety issues are the requirements of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1992. Regulation 3 requires a risk assessment of all work activities and this will include considering the issue and effects of cold weather. The risk assessment should encompass all work-related risks which are caused or increased by winter weather. As always the amount of effort spent on such risk assessments should be in proportion to the likely risks and outcomes and this should prevent unnecessary paperwork and bureaucracy.
Low temperatures in the workplace can increase a number of risks that need to be assessed. The cold can cause discomfort, and in extreme circumstances, hypothermia. Low temperatures can also affect dexterity which can increase risks for some activities. For example, those operating woodworking machines are at a higher risk of accidents when working at low temperatures.
The Health and Safety (Workplace) Regulations 1992 with its associated code of practice (ACOP) require the temperature inside workplaces to be reasonable. What is a reasonable temperature is dependent on the work activities and circumstances and guidelines are given in the ACOP. For workrooms where there is no work which involves severe physical effort e.g. an office, then the temperature should not drop below 16°C.
Local heating e.g. portable heaters may be needed during very cold spells to maintain the minimum temperature. However it is important that these are safe for use as they can present a significant fire hazard. For instance if the heater has not been used for some time, it may be covered in flammable dust. Portable electrical heaters should be subject to visual inspection prior to use and be included in the company’s portable appliance testing regime.
There are many situations where this minimum temperature cannot be achieved, for example where food is handled or in cold stores. In these situations, warm clothing, time limitation in the cold areas, rest areas and similar measures should be taken.
One of the most common consequences of wintery weather is the risk of slips as the result of snow and ice on walkways and paths. Employers have a duty not just to their own staff, but also to non-employees such as the public and other visitors. Serious injuries can result from slipping on ice and while prosecutions do occasionally take place following slipping accidents, potentially expensive civil claims are more likely.
Employers therefore need to be prepared for bad weather and take reasonable action to keep paths and walkways free from ice and snow. This is not an exact science and it is sometimes impossible to keep all accesses free from snow and ice, all of the time. The risk assessment process should have identified priority walkways and take appropriate action to keep them safe. This will include the use of salt and grit as well as warning signs. Employers need to be able to show that they have properly considered the issue and have spent an appropriate amount of resources commensurate with the risk.