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 year’s winter was exceptionally stormy with persistent heavy rainfall and above average temperatures. In fact, it was the wettest winter since 1910, which posed a particular set of challenges. In contrast, weather forecasters are predicting that this year’s winter may well be colder and drier than average with much more in the way of snow and frosts.
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: Do employees really need to be in the workplace, or could they work from home during wintery conditions? Is the office temperature at least 16°C or does additional heating need to be supplied?
- 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.
It’s important to have bad weather policies in place to prepare for potential winter-related issues, to ramp up the provision of wellbeing support to help prevent the spread of winter colds and flu, and to support those who are suffering from stress, which can be made worse during periods of bad weather and the run-up to Christmas. For more information on working in cold weather conditions, see our guide on working in extremes of temperature.