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.
The winter of 2009–2010 in Europe, for example, was unusually cold and in mid-December 2010 snow and cold weather caused widespread disruption across large parts of the UK (e.g. the South East, East Anglia, the East Midlands and Yorkshire). Large numbers of people had to abandon their cars as roads (even motorways, in some cases) became impassable; some were trapped in their cars awaiting rescue. Around 20 people were reported to have died during the snow and sub-zero temperatures in the UK during the final month of 2010.
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.
Employers seeking advice on how to fulfil their responsibility to ensure the safety of their employees during periods of bad weather can get tailored, one-to-one, free guidance from the Health for Work Adviceline on 0800 0 77 88 44.