We are in the midst of a cold winter season that has already brought snowfall, ice and freezing conditions. With many hazards to be aware of, a winter plan is a good idea for reducing risk in the workplace. David Ford, Compliance Lead at CHAS talks you through some factors to consider.
Short days, dark nights
Unsurprisingly, shorter daylight hours have an impact on safety, especially those in outdoor trades but anyone who works in the dark or low light could be at risk. The Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 require several factors be taken into account to ensure that the correct clothing is chosen for a particular task and, in low visibility environments, high visibility (HV) workwear is a must.
According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) “effective HV clothing should be of a colour that will allow the wearer to stand out against the ambient background found in the working environment…the darker the conditions, the greater the amount of HV required”. It should fit the wearer well, be compatible with other forms of PPE and manufactured to a recognised standard. The latest British Standard for high visibility clothing is BS EN 471.
On site, employers could consider erecting illuminated signage which warns of potential dangers that may be missed due to poor visibility and investing in efficient and effective lighting will also facilitate a safer working environment. Rechargeable LED floodlights are popular (rated to IP65 means they are water and dust resistant). Lights should also be portable where possible, so that they can be moved around to where they are needed most.
The simple fact is that bad weather and darkness makes driving more hazardous. It goes without saying that the best thing to do in extremely bad weather is to stay off the roads. However, where this is unavoidable, there are various measures that can be taken to enable journeys are made more safely. The AA has plenty of advice for winter driving such as planning routes in advance, allowing extra time for rest breaks and expecting slower progress. It should be considered whether travel can be made outside peak hours. When journey planning, take into account which roads to travel on; think about whether rural, ungritted roads, steep hills or accident blackspots be avoided and for journeys involving the use of high sided vehicles, consider if there are any stretches of road best avoided in high winds.
Drivers will need to adopt a heightened awareness for other drivers on the road who may be tired or have reduced visibility and it is important to remember that stopping distances can be 10 times longer in icy conditions. There are several safer driving courses directed specifically at employees who drive for work.
Ensuring vehicles are well-serviced is necessary for any season but even more so during winter. Lights and brakes should be regularly tested. Fluids such as windscreen wash, anti-freeze and oil should be topped up and tyre pressure and tread depth (at least 3mm) checked. The AA recommends there is at least a quarter of tank of fuel before embarking on journeys in case of any unexpected delays and windscreen and windows should always be adequately free of ice and de-misted. Drivers should be encouraged to keep an emergency kit in their car in case they become stranded. Items could include food, drink, some spare clothes (including hat and gloves), sturdy footwear and a blanket. A mobile phone car charger or charged power bank, a torch, shovel and warning triangle could also be vital pieces of equipment in an adverse weather event.
Winter hazards for outdoor workers
Working outdoors during the winter can have an impact on health, both short-term and long-term. Cold stress is a term used to encompass any illness caused by the body being unable to maintain core temperature after repeated exposure to cold environments including hypothermia, chilblains and frostbite. It can lead to respiratory and musculoskeletal disorders, cardiovascular disease and various skin conditions. Providing cold stress training will enable workers to recognise the risks of working in colder environments as well as associated symptoms and how to prevent them in themselves and others.
Guidelines from the HSE suggest making sure that adequate PPE is appropriate for the conditions, not least by providing insulation and waterproofing in wet and wintry weather. Employees should be made aware that several thin layers of clothing can be the best way to stay warm because the air trapped between layers serves as thermal insulation. It’s also important to recognise the need to keep ears, face and hands protected against the elements. Insulated, appropriate footwear will reduce the risk of slips and falls and its advisable for employees to bring extra pairs of socks, gloves or a change of clothes to work during bad weather.
Employers can also think about providing and maintaining mobile facilities for workers to take regular rest breaks and warm up with a hot drink. It should always be considered whether any work can be delayed and undertaken at a warmer time of year.
Winter hazards for indoor workers
Despite there being no set minimum or maximum, the temperature in an indoor workplace is covered by the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, which states that “during working hours, the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be reasonable”. The guidelines suggest a minimum temperature of 16℃ for the workplace, and 13℃ if the work in question involves “rigorous physical effort”. There are indoor jobs which require work in more extreme temperatures such as work with frozen food or other cold processes or products. Cold stores are innately high-risk environments, posing many risks for workers, not just in the winter months. Employers should have thorough, regularly reviewed risk assessments for their specific areas and ensure staff are provided with adequate PPE and training.
The global pandemic and recurring lockdowns mean many more employees are now working from home and employers still have the same health and safety obligations for home workers as any other workers. When it comes to cold weather, employees may not realise that they can claim tax relief for additional household costs such as heating. Visit gov.uk/tax-relief-for-employees/working-at-home for further information.
Staying safe from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning is also something to be aware of. Fitting and regular testing of an audible carbon monoxide alarm should be a safety consideration for home workers.
Slips, trips and falls
Slips, trips and falls remain the most common workplace accident, accounting for 29% of all non-fatal injuries reported to RIDDOR in 2019/20. Slip and trip accidents happen more often during the winter for many reasons including rainwater, ice, snow and increased darkness.
On site, employers can prevent the risk of slips by spreading salt when snow or ice is forecast and using matting as well as spot checking for hazards before inclement weather occurs and repairing any potholes or cracks that could cause issues. Hazard tape should be used to seal off any areas that are too icy or dangerous to work in and sturdy handrails installed where possible – particularly in areas where work is taking place in a public space.
Employees should wear appropriate footwear for the conditions and working environment and be reminded to watch where they are walking and take slow, measured steps. Workers should also be encouraged to report any unsafe areas to supervisors.
Workplaces that provide storage for hazardous materials or chemicals should be aware that exposure to extreme temperatures can adversely affect quality as well as pose a safety threat. Chemicals that drop below certain freezing points can cause them to become more volatile leading to hazardous leaks that could endanger people in the vicinity or result in damage to the environment. It is important to know the manufacturer recommendation for optimum temperatures for the chemicals or materials being stored and consider investing in products or solutions that will guarantee storage safety.
While winter hazards can prove a challenge for workplace safety, there are clear measures that can be taken to lessen the risks. A winter plan and regular risk assessments are key to preventing accidents whilst up-to-date training and the provision of sufficient PPE and equipment will all contribute to a safer workplace during the winter months.