Winter is here, and it brings new workplace risks. It doesn’t need to snow for accidents to happen. Wet, windy and icy weather is equally hazardous.
Andrew Regel CMIOSH, Health and Safety Training Technical Lead at Alcumus says: "During the winter months, employers need to be especially mindful of their health and safety obligations."
"Do not overlook the additional risks. Adverse weather conditions introduces and increases a range of hazards for many organisations. For example, cold stress for outdoor workers; slips, trips and falls for pedestrians; or dangerous driving conditions for motorists."
Employees should be safe at work, regardless of the weather. Prevention is crucial to manage workplace winter safety, so promote a strong workplace safety culture. Staff involvement in maintaining winter safety – and reinforcing everybody's responsibility for safety – makes a healthy working environment.
Now, how to avoid winter accidents.
Slips, Trips and Falls (STFs)
Slips and trips can be harmless (or if you’re one of those people, endlessly funny). However, STFs account for 15% of accidental deaths at work in the US. Meanwhile, across the pond, 40% of reported accidents are STFs. As a result, UK employers lose £512 million annually in lost production.
"The key to control risks is preparation. Have policies and procedures ready to implement when, inevitably, the weather takes a turn for the worse," says Andrew. "Employers should incorporate weather impact into risk assessments to ensure appropriate controls are considered."
Here are the top causes of STFS:
In northern areas, winter means early nights and cold mornings. You leave and arrive at work in the dark.
Consequently, trip hazards go undetected. Install bright lighting on outdoor workplace paths, and ask staff for their concerns.
Wet and decaying leaves
Wet leaves are slippery, so schedule regular clearances.
Well, not all accidents are caused by snow and ice. Grass and dirt also becomes slippery when wet, so discourage sneaky shortcuts over green areas.
Ice, frost and snow
Now we’re onto stereotypical winter accidents. Keep an eye on weather forecasts and temperatures, and grit icy pathways and section off dangerous areas when it falls to freezing.
Lack of Gritting
Rock salt stops ice forming and melts existing snow and ice. You know what to do.
Naturally, outdoor workers are at a greater risk of cold stress. It happens when the body temperature drops too low and the body can't heat itself.
Cold stress leads to severe cold-related illnesses, such as: trench foot, frostbite, chilblains and hypothermia. If untreated, it results in permanent tissue damage or death.
According to Environment Canada, temperatures between -10°C to -27°C (14°F to -16°F) risks hypothermia and frostbite. Remember, wind speed greatly impacts air temperature. For example, an air temperature of -5°C (23°F) with a wind speed of 40km/hr, turns into -14°C.
So, what winter PPE is required?
Recommend multiple layers over a single thick garment. Moisture dramatically decreases insulation, so the inner layer should ‘wick’ away sweat. Finally, the outer shell depends on whether it’s raining or windy.
Whether employees drive to work or driving is their job’s main component, they must remain vigilant in wintery conditions.
"If car journeys cannot be avoided, they should be planned carefully and motorists (and vehicles) prepared for all eventualities," advises Andrew.
If driving is unsafe, do not let employers take the risk. In a good workplace safety culture, employees understand winter safety as everyone's responsibility.
If the weather allows travel, encourage employees to plan journeys, for instance, bypassing rural and potentially untreated roads, factoring in extra time, missing peak times, and avoiding steep hills.
Prep vehicles before travel. The Royal Association for the Prevention of Accidents advises to check:
- Lights are working
- Battery is charged
- Windscreen and wipers are clean, with a full washer bottle
- Tyres are in good condition
- Brakes are working well
- Anti-freeze and car oil are topped up
In early 2018, Great Britain and Ireland were hit by the Beast from the East. In other words, a stretch of heavy snow and ice caused by a polar vortex from the Arctic.
The result? Weeks of chaos. People were trapped in homes, unable to get to work or carry out their caring duties. In response, the Scottish Government created a Fair Work Charter for Severe Weather. It compiles helpful tips, and advice to create a Severe Weather Policy.
"Consider contingency measures to follow in case of emergency," says Andrew. "If working remotely is available, adopt it to eliminate the need for workers to venture out."
Your weather policy should make clear the processes to take place when severe weather strikes, including who the decision-makers are, and the available alternative work places.
Most importantly, the Charter advocates placing worker safety at the forefront by deterring staff attempting to travel to work.
Whether you love or hate the winter weather, we can all agree on its potential hazards. You can tackle them with a company-wide safety culture encouraging staff to report issues, and keeping a close eye on weather conditions. In conclusion, it’s better to prevent accidents than deal with their aftermath – so act now!