Unfortunate as it is, winter can’t be prevented. However, employers have legal responsibility to ensure that safety regulations are in place and workers are trained and equipped for harsh seasonal conditions. New potential hazards and health risks arise in winter to be identified and taken care off.
Working in the cold and wet
Construction and surveillance industries are most affected by colder, darker days. Companies must guarantee pleasant and safe working conditions by implementing new precautions and risk assessments.
How the cold affects manual work
Stiff fingers and limbs make manual handling hard. If workers use their hands, they must still operate machines and tools without limitations. Wearing gloves as soon as temperatures drop below 4°C is essential.
Different gloves may be available for each environment; different materials work better for specific tasks.
Workers must take frequent breaks to avoid getting too cold - this also avoids serious illnesses like frost bite.
Cold metal surfaces should be labelled whenever possible, they can cause the skin to freeze and other injuries. Also, installing smart signs that display warning messages when temperatures drop below a certain number, can be helpful for figuring out when to take action.
How the rain effects working conditions
Rain, snow, frost or fallen leaves all impose the threat of slipping. To avoid accidents and potentially expensive civil claims, a company needs to make sure that paths are made from slip-resistant materials. Existing shortcuts should be converted into proper pathways, as walking on wet soil or grass means workers and civilians may slip.
When paths are slippery with ice or snow, companies must grit them accordingly. Keep in mind that grit can be washed away by heavy rain, so grit before and after rainfall. If you don't have time and resources to continually grit, at least put up warning signs.
Measuring temperature alone isn’t meaningful when it comes to determining whether working conditions are comfortable or not. Wind and rain can worsen a situation immensely. The body loses 25 to 30 times more heat when in wet conditions as compared to dry conditions.
The employer needs to:
• Provide wet weather clothing, changing facilities and staff training on weather appropriate clothing.
• Ensure workers are dressed in many layers rather than a few, thick clothing pieces.
In a job that requires exercise or heavy physical work, employees will be sweating underneath top layers. Wet layers should be taken off during breaks to reduce the risk of illness. Rain shielding, blankets and emergency supplies should always be provided.
Staying inside – Working in the office during winter
The drop-in temperatures and daylight hours affect office workers as well as outdoor workers.
Having the sniffles
It’s easy to catch a cold, especially in the transitional times around November and December. To prevent viruses, wash hands often and thoroughly with soap, and thoroughly wash communal crockery. Both will stop bacteria spreading.
Providing hand disinfectant in the office and training staff on how to prevent colds is key: Does everyone know how to heat and ventilate properly? Does everyone have access to the radiator and can turn it on/off themselves?
Dry air can make eyes itchy and throats feel dry, so be sure to let fresh air in regularly. Temperatures should never drop below 16°C so visible thermometers should be installed in the office.
Hands get cold very easily when working at a computer. Workers should have access to free hot drinks and the option of a healthy, hot meal during lunch.
We tend to crave carbs and fat during winter, but in fact we still need vegetables and fruits just as much as in the summer. A lack of vitamins can cause fatigue and loss of concentration - it is advisable to provide healthy options in the cafeteria or an office fruit basket.
Having chronic pain
People with preexisting conditions, like painful joints, stiffness or arthritis, find them worsening during winter. These conditions affect workers’ productivity and overall well-being so they should not be taken lightly; daily exercise can help and prevent the pain.
Exercise maintains healthier sleeping habits, energy and stress levels. Big companies might have a company gym, but if not, why not hand out gym discounts to workers to encourage a work out?
Having the blues
Winter tiredness is common. It’s harder to get out of bed, you might feel sleepy during the day and start to lose focus in the afternoon due to early sunset. Lack of sunlight causes your brain to produce less melatonin, which makes you feel tired.
Make sure to have curtains and blinds open in the office and try to be outside as much as possible - even if it’s just a quick walk at lunch time. If possible, move your desk closer to the window.
Mental health conditions, such as depression or seasonal affective disorder SAD, can lead people to have a hard time focusing, being unproductive at work or even getting in dangerous situations. Sick leave shouldn’t be restricted to physical illnesses, but mental unwellness too. Making staff come up with excuses makes it harder to feel understood and safe at work. Providing access to helplines, encouraging openness and making sure support is in place creates an environment in which people feel safe to talk about mental health.
Preparing for winter
Companies need to ask themselves: Are we prepared for seasonal obstacles?
Health and safety guidelines should state details of who will be responsible for which task (clearing pathways, gritting, buying fruits etc.). Another option is to reschedule tasks for warmer weather or indoor work. Industries relying on weather conditions must prepare for decreased working hours – and therefore less income – during winter. Employers should save during the spring and summer to cover later expenses.
All in all, there is no general guideline on which hazards exist and how to treat them. Every workplace and every company have different issues and therefore different solutions and implementations are needed. Complying with health and safety regulations is an obligation for all companies at all times. In the event of an accident, employers will look at high breaching fees and ugly PR scandals.
A professional risk assessment is the only way to be certain that a company is complying with health and safety regulations and workers are properly trained and informed. An online health and safety compliance assessment can diagnose a vague level of compliance, but won’t be able to locate all weaknesses and potential dangers.
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