Preparing for an unpredictable winter

Winter weather, lady with umbrella in snow

Everyone knows that winter weather conditions can pose serious risks to health and safety, but cold weather can also have a freezing effect on the economy. The impact of the Siberian ‘Beast from the East’, which collided with ‘Storm Emma’ in early 2018, was estimated to have cost the UK economy roughly £1 billion a day, rising to £2bn in the construction industry as workers were forced to down tools over the three worst days.

However, the winter weather does not have to include heavy snowfall to pose a risk to businesses. Cold, wintry weather can cause freezing conditions, for which employers need to be prepared. Below are a few simple steps you can take to increase your winter weather preparedness, so that you and your staff know exactly what to do once the temperature begins to descend.

Review the laws and regulations

According to government guidelines, there is no law regulating the minimum or maximum temperatures in the workplace. The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) suggests that minimum temperatures should range between 13-16ºC for workers who are engaging in physical labour. Employers are obligated, however, to keep temperatures at a comfortable level and provide their employees with fresh, clean air.

The HSE also recognises that working outdoors in cold weather can carry serious health risks as there are roughly 20,000 deaths in the UK every year as a result of hypothermia. It provides a series of recommendations for increasing the safety of working outdoors in cold conditions, which include:

  • Ensuring that employees understand the importance of wearing the correct PPE while working in cold conditions
  • Delaying work that can be rescheduled to slightly warmer months of the year
  • Training employees to recognise signs of cold stress
  • Providing employees with mobile facilities for warming up during breaks

It is the employer’s responsibility to ensure that the worksite is safe, and that health hazards and risks are mitigated, so it is important to take the time to educate staff and provide the proper facilities for those working outdoors.

Winter storm car covered with snow with a sad face expression on hood of car.

Include winter weather in your risk assessment

The weather is becoming increasingly difficult to predict accurately in light of changing climate conditions. As weather patterns become more extreme and more erratic, it is vitally important to include winter weather considerations in your general risk assessment.

Some of the most important areas to include are road and pathway safety, and a safe water supply. Frosted car parks, walkways and building entrances can become slip hazards for anyone visiting a worksite, for which the landowner is liable. It is also possible for water supplies to freeze over during a storm if water lines have not been prepared for potential freezing temperatures.

Routine risk assessments, together with regular maintenance checks of fire and carbon monoxide detectors, winter safety equipment and supplies will ensure that you are fully stocked with the necessary materials before a storm arrives.

If you have never performed a risk assessment and need advice, the HSE has a series of helpful guidelines on how to identify areas of risk and put procedures in place to mitigate health and safety hazards.

Develop plans for winter weather

Risk assessments should factor in weather-related considerations and a number of different emergency response plans should be drafted to meet varying levels of severity. Although this process may seem tedious, it may prove invaluable later to have a series of protocols in place for handling frosty winter weather, small snowstorms or more severe winter weather.

Stock up on winter preparedness essentials

When preparing for winter, stock up in advance on cold weather essentials such as grit, salt and other de-icers. This is a priority as employers are liable for injuries caused by slips or falls. You will need to ensure that you have watertight (lockable if possible) grit bins installed and fully stocked with de-icing salt at the end of Autumn to ensure that you are ready to act quickly when temperatures start to drop.

You should also elect dedicated staff members or caretakers to check weekly forecasts and manage gritting and de-icing procedures. The best time to start gritting is either early in the evening, before damp walkways have frosted over, or first thing in the morning, before staff and visitors arrive at the workplace.

Build communication lines – contingency planning

When the weather is so severe that it is hazardous for staff to even travel to work, it is important to be able to communicate with them quickly. Before the winter weather has started, build lines of communication with employees so that you will be able to reach them when you need to.

When weather conditions begin to worsen or in the event of a storm, remind your staff to check their email or phone messages each morning to ensure that they receive your communication before heading into work.

Gauging when to tell your employees to stay away from the worksite can be difficult, and will require you to be diligent in the early morning, when the government makes recommendations regarding whether to stay inside in the event of severe weather.

Naturally, the best made plans can go awry and serious storms will always pose unforeseen risks and threats that have not been accounted for. However, with a thorough risk assessment, well-informed employees and careful planning, your business will be in a better place to ride the storm and resume ‘business as usual’ in the aftermath.

Disclaimer: The information provided through Legislation Watch is for general guidance only and is not legal advice. Legislation Watch is not a substitute for Health and Safety consultancy. You should seek independent advice about any legal matter.

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