With winter as inevitable as the passage of time, you’d think that UK employers would have everything under control when it comes to winter working practices.
Yet disappointingly, more falls from height and slips and trips are still reported between October to March, with the latter peaking in winter.
Surprisingly, some organisations report that a chief cause of incidents in recent years wasn’t snow or ice. It was high winds, blowing hoardings, fences or other loose material onto pedestrian routes and highways.
So be mindful of looking beyond obvious hazards like frozen surfaces. Perhaps it’s our familiarity with miserable weather in the UK. Or our fatalist attitude to unpredictable weather, that encourages people to stockpile a few bags of rock salt and think they’ve got the problem solved.
Whatever the reason, smart organisations realise that a timely, proactive and employee-led approach to winter working practices is how you protect their well-being, as well as your hard-earned record for safety, productivity and quality.
Yet, this needn’t be a challenge.
Winter is traditionally a time when we seek shelter from the elements, and enjoy a few homely comforts. And there’s no reason why you can’t extend those seasonal sentiments to the workplace. Use this chance to get creative with communicating the importance of health and well-being. You could put hearty food on the menu in the staff canteen, to fortify against colds and flu, for example.
Below, we’ve scoured our archives and past campaigns with world-class organisations for useful ideas, and devised a checklist to help you target your efforts in five common, high-risk areas this winter.
1. Access routes
Don’t just assess the obvious areas which are susceptible to water or ice – look beyond ground level.
Ask staff where they’ve felt most exposed at work, in areas like rooftops and scaffolds. What ideas and improvements would they suggest to keep them comfortable, safe and focused on the job?
When you’ve gathered their ideas, you could have them printed onto a pocket-sized winter working checklist.
Dangerous even in the best of weather conditions, driving a vehicle has become so commonplace that it almost defines how blind we can become to everyday risks. And winter just heightens the danger.
Invite frequent drivers to devise and champion a checklist for their vehicles. Quiz them about ongoing maintenance issues that they’ve tolerated for too long, then fix them to prove your commitment to their wellbeing on the road.
Involve them in journey planning too, allowing extra time in reduced daylight or poor weather conditions so their safety remains a higher priority than logistical targets.
3. Working at height
Compared to snow and ice, we’re more likely to see high winds and floods causing problems, if UK winters continue to be more temperate. Yet how many organisations can honestly say they’ve adapted their risk assessment process for a changing climate?
All winter weather has the potential to affect temporary support structures or building work at both ground level and at height. We’ve heard horror stories of recently-laid brickwork collapsing from above (due to frost damage) and loose scaffold boards being blown into public footpaths.
Thankfully, nobody was hurt, but the risks of working at height without proper storage of materials in bad weather couldn’t be more obvious.
Invite a team member to be responsible for monitoring weather forecasts. Empower them to take charge in the planning process for all activities at height. Let them lead briefings and carry out checks at the beginning and end of each day.
Email bulletins or text message updates are a useful way to communicate timely weather reports to staff who work remotely.
4. Manual handling
Lower temperatures stiffen muscles and make people feel tired more quickly. Poor weather simply compounds the situation with poor grip, balance, visibility and underfoot conditions.
Do staff have adequate, warm welfare provisions on-site? Have you created an environment where staff feel like they can speak up if they don’t? Is there a culture of ‘manning up’ at work, even if you’re injured or sick?
You could run ‘back to work’ awareness programmes after the Christmas holiday period, to refresh people’s memory on correct lifting practices, and avoid them slipping back into bad habits.
5. Public protection
Those of our clients with mature safety cultures encourage individuals to realise that every decision can have wider, unpredictable consequences. That extends beyond the workplace to people on the periphery of your project.
Consider public access routes around site boundaries. How will high winds affect hoardings or fences and any activities (like equipment or vehicle washes) which spray water onto pedestrian routes or highways, making them more slippery? Especially in freezing conditions.
Do your staff think monitoring public spaces, walkways or thoroughfares is someone else’s job? Or do they realise it’s a shared responsibility to report on and take action?
Look at your near-miss and incident data for Q4 over previous years. Can you spot any seasonal trends? If so, target your awareness and prevention campaigns on them now (in September and October), so your messages have time to sink in, before winter.
Winter is coming
Every successful organisation knows that going the extra mile to achieve a target should never be at the expense of doing the job safely. And that’s a particularly important thing to remember this autumn, as daylight begins to dwindle and unsettling winter weather looms on the horizon.