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The great outdoors and winter protection for employees

30-10-17, 15:00

Blog by winter maintenance specialists: GRITIT

Winter is almost here, and with the colder weather starting to make its way across the country, many business owners are cranking up the office heating and ordering grit in for the pathways. We must, however, spare more than a passing thought for those of us not lucky enough to be in a nice warm commercial building all the time this winter. This is a dangerous time of year for the outdoor employee, so now is the time to perform risk assessments and prepare your staff for winter, so that when the bad weather comes, you'll be able to keep everyone safe and productive.

Seasoned outdoor workers

Employees that regularly work outdoors should be well-prepared for winter but it never hurts to refresh their training and your compliance as temperatures drop. A general risk assessment can be prepared now, with provision for reassessment as conditions change. Protective clothing will need to be provided so, if your employees require any item, now is the time to check what they have.

All employees need protection

It's not just employees that work outdoors you need to protect, but also those that travel between clients or are seconded to external activities. It is essential that these employees are provided with awareness training on working in winter conditions - and the equipment to do so.

A case in point is that of Tracy Kennedy from Glasgow. She was employed as a visiting carer for a terminally ill client when she slipped on an un-gritted path and damaged her wrist. She had not been briefed on the procedure to follow when faced with icy conditions nor had she been provided with suitable footwear. As the accident occurred during working hours and her appointment with her client for essential care was not able to be rescheduled, the UK Supreme Court found in her favour.

As always, risk analysis is meaningless if the employer doesn't act on the assessment; this is the clear lesson from Tracy Kennedy's case where a risk analysis had been completed and the risk identified.

Know the warning signs of cold stress

While there is no legal minimum temperature, the employers' Duty of Care dictates that employees shouldn't be working in unhealthy conditions.

Identify all those employees who will be outdoors during their working hours. This will include employees who need to perform site visits as well as those with outdoor jobs. For outdoor employees, you will need to ensure there is a place to retreat from the weather and warm-up, and lay down guidelines on what conditions merit more frequent rest breaks.

Take measures so employees know the warning signs of cold stress and what actions they need to take to look after themselves and colleagues.

Without proper clothing, it's obvious that heat loss is accelerated. With prolonged exposure to cold temperatures blood from hands, feet and legs goes to the core areas of the body to protect vital organs, leaving extremities at increased risk to hypothermia. As the body generates Metabolic Heat through the digestion of food and physical activity, regular breaks and good nourishment is vital. Even a mild symptom of cold stress can cause lack of co-ordination, increasing the risk to employees, especially in icy conditions or when operating machinery.

The dangers of Cold Stress are greatly increased when you add two other factors to the equation.

Low Temperature + Wind Speed + Wetness = Cold Stress

PPE - designed for safety, not a fashion statement

All employees need to be provided with suitable PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), and employers must ensure that it is worn at all times. A Kimberly Clark survey found that 29% safety professionals who had observed staff, found that they regularly did not use PPE. (The BIFM Good Practice Guide on Winter Maintenance dedicates a full section to this important requirement) The requirements for outdoor staff carrying out tasks such as grounds maintenance or gritting duties include the following:

  • Staff must wear a high-vis jacket, gloves, steel-toe capped and slip resistant footwear and goggles
  • When wearing additional clothes and hats for warmth, make sure they do not introduce a hazard, by making it difficult to operate equipment safely or creating a danger from catching on machinery

Safety behind wheel this winter

Driving in winter conditions is especially hazardous and Driving for Better Business reported that one in three road crashes involved a vehicle being driven for work.

As an employer, you have a duty of care to your employees for all work activities on the road as well as in the workplace. This applies to individuals who use your company vehicles and anyone who uses their own vehicle for business purposes. This legal duty does not extend to employees commuting, however, responsible employers' best practice is to do everything practicable to look after employees with relevant advice.

Make sure company policies are clear about what constitutes adverse conditions and avoiding unnecessary journeys. When journeys do have to be made, document the appropriate pre-checks, advice on planning journeys and allowance for extra time to complete journeys.

  • Ensure your fleet is clean and well-maintained and equipped with winter equipment.
  • Advise employees to carry a winter motoring kit.
  • Consider providing winter motoring training, especially if you expect that they will have to drive frequently in icy, wet or low-visibility conditions.
  • Employees should also undergo training if they are required to drive and are unfamiliar with carrying heavier loads or towing trailers or equipment.

Take time to assess what you need to keep your employees safe this winter. Making these basic checks now should ensure that you minimise any vehicle downtime and protect your staff and the reputation of your company in the event of an accident.

This blog draws on the latest 2017 update of the British Institute of Facilities Management (BIFM) Good Practice Guide on Winter Maintenance, prepared in association with GRITIT

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