Temperatures have been plummeting with arctic winds giving us a taste of what this year’s winter may look like. 2017 is supposed to be the “year of the snowstorm”, the coldest since 2010/11, when Britain suffered a severe cold snap that brought sub-zero temperatures and frost over the country.
Unfortunately, winter can’t be prevented. But employers do have a legal responsibility to ensure that safety regulations are in place and workers are trained and equipped for seasonal conditions. Both outside and in, new potential hazards and health risks arise that need to be identified and taken care off.
Working in the cold and wet
Industries affected most by colder, darker days are obviously those that require working outside, like construction or surveillance. Therefore, companies need to guarantee that working conditions are as pleasant and safe as possible by implementing new precautions and risk assessments.
How the cold effects your judgement
Shivering in the cold is not only uncomfortable, but it can also seriously impact your judgement: you just want to get home as quickly as possible, right? Rushing things might lead to incautious and sloppy decision-making and thus pose risks to the operation and everyone involved in it.
Stiff fingers and limbs make manual handling hard and therefore dangerous. If workers are working with their hands a lot, employers need to make sure they can still operate machines and tools without limitations. Wearing gloves as soon as temperatures drop below 4°C is essential. Workers need to be instructed on the type of gloves that are appropriate for certain work in a certain environment, since different materials might be better for specific tasks.
In general, employers need to make sure that workers take frequent breaks in between to avoid getting too cold and prevent even more severe threats, such as frost bite. Cold metal surfaces need to be labelled whenever possible as they can cause the skin to freeze amongst 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, companies must assure they’re being treated with grit accordingly. There are different kinds of grit suited for different situations and not every slippery surface might be suitable to grit. For example, grit can be washed away easily in heavy rain, so make sure you use grit before and after rainfall. If a company doesn’t have time or the resources to ensure that all accesses are free from snow and have been treated with grit, at least put up warning signs to show that the issue has been identified.
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 and changing facilities and train their staff on how to dress appropriate. This is crucial to staying warm and dry in the winter.
• Ensure workers are dressed in layers as opposed to a few, thick clothing pieces. Being able to take off single layers when needed is important to staying comfortable.
Especially if working in a job that requires exercise or heavy physical work, employees will be sweating underneath your 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, in case they’re needed.
Staying inside – Working in the office during winter
As the drop-in temperatures and less hours of daylight do not only effect those working on the streets, but also those in offices.
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 to avoid bacteria. Also, washing plates, dishes, etc. that are used by everyone in the office is important to avoid passing on bacteria.
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.
When sitting at the computer, hands get cold very easily. 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 when it gets colder, 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 and strength, so it is advised to provide healthy options in the cafeteria or at least some fruit in the office.
Having chronical pain
People with preexisting conditions, like painful joints, stiffness or arthritis, find them becoming more severe 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 in many cases. Also, doing exercise helps to maintain healthier sleeping habits, feel more energetic and focused and to release stress. Big companies might have a company gym, but if they don’t have one, why not hand out gym discounts to workers to encourage them to work out as a Christmas present this year?
Having the blues
People experience winter tiredness during the colder months. 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. Also make sure your office gets as much sunlight as possible; maybe even move your desk somewhere closer to the windows?
Mental health conditions, such as depression or winter-specific disorders like 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 also allow people to stay home when experiencing severe struggle with depression. 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 will help create 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.). Considering, if work could be rescheduled for warmer weather or be done indoors instead, is another option. Industries that rely on weather conditions need to be prepared for less working hours – and therefore less income – during winter. Employers should try to save up during the warmer and more productive months to cover expenses later in the year, such as equipment damage and periods in which there is less demand.
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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