Health and safety in the cold weather
Winter weather brings with it a whole range of safety problems for employers, and it’s not just about employees who work outdoors. Even the walk from the car park to the office can be hazardous if there’s been a frost or black ice overnight.
Fortunately, there are several things you can do in order to make sure employees are comfortable and safe in winter weather.
Office temperatures and portable heaters
Under the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, employers must provide a ‘reasonable’ temperature in the workplace. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) suggests a minimum workplace temperature of 16 degrees Celsius or 13 degrees for physical work. This is not a legal requirement and employers should decide, in consultation with employees, what constitutes a “reasonable” temperature.
Portable heaters are often used at work, especially when employees don’t agree on the office temperature. However, poorly maintained portable heaters can cause electric shocks or start fires. It’s important to do a risk assessment before introducing heaters or anything similar into the office.
Portable heaters should not be:
· used if they have not been Portable Appliance Tested (PAT)
· used if they have any broken wires or signs of damage
· plugged in using an extension cord if this can be avoided. If it can’t, extension cords should be PAT tested and the right size, and never be coiled when in use. Remember that trailing extension cords are a trip hazard
· used on uneven surfaces or in locations where people might fall over them
· placed near any flammable material. Typically, portable heaters should be kept at least 3 feet away from anything that could burn or combust
· placed near sources of water
· used to dry clothes or any other materials
· left on and unattended. They should be turned off and unplugged at the end of the working day or when the employee leaves the room. Where electrical heaters are automatically turned on by timer switches, you will still need to consider whether they are safe to be left plugged in
· used permanently. Portable heaters are meant as a temporary fix
Ice, frost and snow
To reduce the risk of slips on ice, frost or snow, you should keep an eye on the weather forecast so you know when you need to take action. The Met Office offers email alerts for severe weather warnings.
You will need to identify where people are most likely to be affected by snow and ice - for example, car parks, walkways, building entrances and sloped areas. To keep these surfaces safe, you could:
· apply grit to make areas less slippery,
· cover risky walkways,
· divert people to other entrances and barrier off where they shouldn’t go. If warning cones or other signs are used, remember to remove them once the hazard passes or people will start to ignore them.
Grit can stop ice forming and cause existing ice or snow to melt. You should consider gritting when the temperature drops to 1 degree or below. You can consult with the local council about what areas they are gritting because they might cover areas your employees use.
It’s best to apply grit in the early evening before frost settles or before employees arrive in the morning. Grit doesn’t work instantly and needs enough time to dissolve the frozen moisture on the floor.
If you grit when it is raining heavily, it will be washed away and won’t be helpful if rain turns to snow. Be aware that ‘dawn frost’ can occur on dry surfaces. This is when early morning dew forms and freezes on contact with the cold surface. It can be difficult to predict when or where this will happen.
To help reduce risks caused by rainwater, you may consider the following:
· paving external areas with slip resistant materials;
· discouraging people from taking shortcuts over grass or earth, which are likely to become slippery when wet;
· converting shortcuts into proper paths;
· fitting canopies over building entrances and in the right position to help prevent people slipping when they enter and leave a building;
· adding large, absorbent mats to entrances.
During winter nights, you should consider if there is enough lighting for your employees to see and avoid hazards. Ask employees if they think there is enough light, or walk the areas they use when it’s dark to find out for yourself. You may find you need to improve the lighting or remove hazards caused by low light.
Wet and decaying leaves
Fallen leaves can hide hazards on paths or become a slip risk themselves, for both pedestrians and vehicles. You should have a plan to remove leaves at regular intervals. You may even consider removing bushes or trees on your property that overhang walkways and roads.
If employees work outside, in warehouses, or in walk-in cold stores or freezers, ensure they have clothing that is warm enough and waterproof. The Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 say that where there is a risk to their health or safety, employees must be provided with suitable personal protective equipment (PPE).