As the seasons change, so do the risks faced by workers. AFI partner CHAS provides tips on how to keep focused on health and safety during the winter months
When winter approaches, outdoor workers have to negotiate new hazards. Poor light, exposure to cold and slippery surfaces can lead to accidents causing severe injury, ill-health and even a threat to life.
When workers experience excessive cold, they are more likely to behave unsafely as their ability to make decisions and/or perform manual tasks deteriorates (1). Shorter daylight hours can also affect the ability to see and be seen. Every year there are over 2,500 RIDDOR incidents involving transport in the workplace and being struck by a vehicle is one of the most common causes of fatal workplace accidents (2). Apart from causing dangerous driving conditions, rain, ice and snow can increase the risk of slips and trips, which are the most common cause of major injury in UK workplaces (3).
Here, CHAS sets out ten ways to help prevent accidents throughout the winter:
1) Carry out daily safety meetings. Safety briefings are a useful way to keep health and safety in workers’ minds and should cover changes in weather, temperature, shorter days and low light. Keep meetings brief and focused to maximise retention: discuss the day’s activities, risks that apply, and how to work safe. Make sure workers know that if at any time they feel they are working in an unsafe way, they can stop, report and seek advice.
2) Review your safety clothing. Thermal comfort is key to worker productivity and maintaining a consistent body temperature is vital. Manual work can also produce sweat, which contributes to rapid cooling of body temperature, so it’s important that protective clothing includes a breathable base layer to wick away moisture. An insulating mid-layer and waterproof outer layer, meanwhile, protect against the cold, wind and rain.
Also consider whether footwear provides enough grip, warmth, and waterproofness. Are winter helmet liners or beanies compatible with hard hats – you cannot just pull your hoodie up under your hard hat! Do workers require extra layers, thick socks and/or gloves? Working in cold temperatures can cause loss of feeling, making it difficult to carry out detailed work with the hands and can even lead to frostbite.
3) Issue photoluminescent safety helmet/hard hat stickers. A study published by The Institute for Work & Health in January 2013 showed that the rate of work injury goes up between 5pm and 5am, when light is poor. In winter, this may be exacerbated by shorter daylight hours.
Photoluminescent helmets give the wearer an added level of safety. When passing through areas of ambient lighting, the luminescent material will absorb energy and then glow as the wearer passes into darker areas. Retro-reflective stickers can also be added to helmets to enhance the visibility and safety of workers, and highlight key messages, day and night.
4) Equip workers with comfortable and EN ISO 20471-compliant high-visibility clothing. Hi-vis clothing helps drivers of approaching vehicles see the wearer, gives them more time to react and reduces the risk of people being hit. Genuine hi-vis has fluorescent material providing daytime visibility, and retro-reflective tape that reflects light directly back toward light sources.
Reflective over-vests or jackets are available as well as full-body hi-vis clothing, with thermal insulation for winter temperatures. A risk assessment will identify what hi-vis protection is necessary to suit the role and environment. Wearing more unusual colours – or any colour that passes the EN ISO 20471 test – to replace or contrast against the traditional yellow can also help wearers to stand out and combat ‘hi-vis fatigue’.
5) Encourage staff to take regular and frequent breaks. Working in cold temperatures can lead to a lowering of the body temperature, which in turn can cause problems with concentration and tiredness, increasing the risk of accidents. It can also be more tiring working in low light.
Identify cold areas of work and enable individuals working here to take regular breaks in warm, sheltered environments and consume hot drinks. Drying rooms should also be provided where wet clothing can be dried.
6) Put up clear signage throughout the workplace to warn of danger. Slips and falls can occur more frequently in winter due to wet floors, snow and ice. Health and safety signs can help by ensuring workers are aware of and alert to the hazards. According to the Health and Safety (Safety Signs and Signals) Regulations, 1996, employers must use safety signs where significant risk to health and safety continues after all other relevant precautions have been taken.
Once a business has selected compliant safety signage, they must keep notices clearly displayed, unobstructed and well-maintained. Failure to do so could pose a significant danger if an emergency arises. It’s also essential that all staff understand what signs mean.
7) Introduce warm-up exercises. Encouraging workers to take part in 10 minutes of stretching at the start of their working day can get their blood circulating and warm up cold muscles. Calisthenics exercise can produce similar results. It is a form of strength training that exercises large muscle groups using minimal equipment. As well as fostering team spirit exercise increases energy levels – and therefore productivity – and decreases soft tissue injuries.
8) Practise driving, parking and backing up. Vehicles are common causes of accidents, particularly in low light. Twenty people were killed at work after being struck by a moving vehicle in 2019/20, representing 18% of all work-related fatal injuries. Of 65,427 incidents during that period, 2% (1,483) involved RIDDOR-reportable injuries caused by a moving vehicle (4). Look to implement a reverse park requirement for all car parks to ensure that all vehicles pull off in a forward movement.
Ensure that all workers are qualified in the jobs they are doing, especially when it comes to operating vehicles. It is also important that operators are advised to take things slower when the weather is bad and, if necessary, wait until conditions improve. If possible, supplement on-site learning with an online health and safety course.
9) Be aware of worker diets and encourage healthy eating. It’s easy for healthy eating to go out the window in winter but a diet high in sugar and stimulants such as caffeine can cause blood-sugar crashes, affecting concentration, alertness and information-processing. There is also a strong connection between nutrition and sleep, with caffeine diluting our sleep drive. The knock-on effect of poor sleep and fatigue can be a huge threat to workplace safety, as well as health.
Employers may fear being seen to ‘meddle’. However, by providing educational resources and raising awareness through health-promotion initiatives, you can empower workers to make their own decisions. Involving employees in the design and implementation of a health and wellbeing programme from the outset is also more likely to gain buy-in.
10) Be aware of mental health. Contrary to popular belief, suicide rates spike in the spring, not in winter. However, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is sometimes known as “winter depression” because the symptoms are usually more apparent and more severe during the winter.
Mental Health First-Aid England courses can teach people to spot the symptoms of mental-health issues, offer initial help and guide sufferers towards further support. Also consider providing access to free online resources about tackling mental ill health in the workplace.