As winter sets in, employers need to be aware that workers who are exposed to cold, wet or icy conditions may be at risk of sustaining injuries or becoming ill. In the more mild regions of the UK people aren’t used to sudden drops in temperature and many people struggle to cope when they are faced with bouts of wintery conditions.
Last winter (2014/15), when compared to the 1981-2010 average, was actually rated by the Met Office as being relatively benign and quiet when compared to the exceptionally stormy weather of the previous winter, so cold weather wasn’t a major issue for the UK, particularly in the more southern areas. And current predictions for this winter seem to be focused on a mild, wet and windy start, although there’s a possibility of markedly colder weather into January and February, which may affect workers as they adjust to the shift in temperature.
During colder winters, slips on ice and snow are obvious risks during freezing weather conditions although there are particular illnesses that are associated with cold conditions including hypothermia, frostbite and chilblains. Employers have a duty to ensure they have done all that is reasonably practicable to prevent employees having accidents or becoming ill due to their work. Different considerations about working conditions will be necessary depending on the type of work done by employees:
- Office-based workers: Is the office temperature at least 16°C or does additional heating need to be supplied? Where the office temperature is known to be an issue, or staff have potentially difficult or dangerous commutes in bad weather, home working might be worth considering.
- Outdoor workers: Employees working outside must be provided with adequate protective clothing to ensure that they remain warm and safe (e.g. hats, gloves, safety boots and high-visibility padded jackets). Risks identified in the initial risk assessment may pose even more danger in bad weather conditions (e.g. the risk of slipping whilst climbing ladders or working at heights).
- Company drivers: Ideally employees should avoid driving in dangerous weather conditions unless the journey is absolutely necessary (according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) up to a third of all road traffic accidents involve somebody who is at work at the time). Employers should keep abreast with the latest weather reports and base decisions on whether or not to allow company drivers to set off on journeys on risk assessments.
Employers seeking advice on how to fulfil their responsibility to ensure the safety of their employees during periods of bad weather can get free guidance from Fit for Work through the website or by calling the Freephone advice line on 0800 032 6235.