As the UK workforce faces biting cold, frost and harsher weather conditions as we head into the winter months, it’s important to take the time to consider the new risks that cold weather brings to your employees and produce an updated risk assessment.
According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), assessment of risks to workers’ health and safety from working in cold environments must consider both personal and environmental factors. This can include a workers’ level of activity, their clothing and duration to exposure of cold weather, whilst environmental factors include temperature and radiant heat, and whilst working outside, the presence of rain, snow, sunlight and wind levels.
When carrying out a risk assessment in winter, you must take more than just cold temperatures into account. Those responsible for health and safety must also consider rapid heat loss, wet clothing, snow, ice and the main health issues that can result from poor preparation.
Main considerations for cold weather work
Risk of decrease in body temperature
As humans, our bodies have a core temperature of 37°C – and if this drops – we could be in real danger. Humans can fall unconscious when our body temperature drops to 31°C, whilst death can occur below 26°C.
Whilst working in cold weather, it’s important to spot the health signs of a drop in body temperature. Early indications of being affected by cold weather includes:
- Fatigue or drowsiness
- Lack of coordination
- Persistent, severe shivering
A drop in temperature can furthermore cause dehydration, numbness, frostbite and hypothermia. Whilst severe cases of hypothermia and frostbite can be fatal, even the mild effects of these conditions can cause poor coordination and irrational or confused behaviour which can seriously affect employee safety.
What temperature is too cold for work?
According to the HSE’s Construction Industry Advisory Committee, workers are at risk from cold weather when the ambient temperature is below 10°C and the wind speed is 20 miles per hour. This combination of temperature and wind makes the temperature drop to 0°C, which highlights that risks from cold weather can occur even when ice and snow is not present.
The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 further highlight that “During working hours, the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be reasonable.” The guidelines suggest a minimum temperature of 16°C for the workplace, and 13°C if the work in question involves ‘rigorous physical effort.’
Impact for employees
Whilst working in colder weather conditions, employees with existing medical conditions, such as cardiovascular problems, respiratory diseases or employees on certain medications need to be more careful as the harsher weather can help worsen their health problems.
Employees may suffer more colds, attacks of bronchitis and asthma, or painful, stiff joints and fatigue as a result of the increased energy used to stay warm.
The cold weather can also have an impact on employees who use pneumatic or vibrating tools. Manual handling studies have highlighted that the cold weather has an affect on our hands and using these tools can help develop hand-arm vibration syndrome.
When working in cold conditions, there is also an increased risk of slips, trips and falls which can be fatal.
What is the impact on lone workers?
Across the UK, tens of thousands of lone workers will be baring the cold this winter to perform essential duties. Whilst cold weather affects everyone and their roles, the cold weather especially impacts lone workers who must travel and work outside as part of their role.
The major risk for lone workers is in the name – they are working alone. Spotting the signs of deteriorating health and wellbeing caused by lower temperatures can’t be supported by other colleagues or managers – that’s why it’s important to ensure that lone workers have protections in place to raise an alert when their health and safety is in danger.
Controls for cold weather working conditions
When assessing the risks of cold weather working, a range of controls can be identified to help mitigate risks that threaten the safety of your employees.
To help employees stay safe from cold weather, the first step is prevention. As an employer, you must consider if the job performed in the cold can be delayed or if it can be continued at a later date when the weather improves. However, if the work cannot be rescheduled, you must consider limiting the hours that employees work within the cold by adjusting work patterns.
Furthermore, employees should also be able to take regular breaks in a warm building with access to warm drinks to ensure effective recovery and efficiency. Providing employees with food containing carbohydrates and fat for energy and warmth, before, during and after work can also support their health and safety at work during cold conditions.
- Arrange for workers to work in pairs or in a wider team. If an employee has to work alone, consider providing them with a lone worker safety device.
- Prepare for vehicle breakdowns with warm clothing, gloves, blankets, food and other emergency supplies in the case that you are stranded in cold conditions for a temporary period.
- Train workers to recognise the symptoms of overexposure in themselves and their colleagues.
- Ensure that metal handles are insulated and where possible, labelled.
Whilst working in cold environments, employees should always wear appropriate clothing. It is recommended that employees wear an inner layer of clothing that absorbs moisture, followed by a shirt or weather with insulation, with a final outer layer that is waterproof, windproof and overall comfortable and durable.
Providing insulated headgear should also be worn by employees. Did you know that up to half of your body’s heat can be lost through your head? It’s also important for employees to protect their feet by wearing two layers of socks and well-fitted shoes or boots if the weather permits. Wearing a pair of gloves can also keep hands warm.
If your clothing gets severely soaked as a result of working in cold weather, it’s important to dry yourself off and stay in a warm environment to avoid developing hypothermia and other conditions as a result of cold weather.
- Allow more time for workers to complete tasks if protective clothing is having a negative impact on their performance.
- Train workers how to stay warm with information on safe working practices in cold weather.
- Provide shelter and other facilities to allow workers to have regular breaks in a heated environment with warm water.
- Have facilities in place for changing, drying and storing protective clothing.
To properly prepare and respond to working within cold conditions, it’s vital to actively monitor different environmental conditions such as the temperature and wind speeds. By identifying cold weather conditions, you can put these controls in place to protect your employees from the risks we have already identified.
- Conduct regular checks on the health and safety of employees working in cold conditions
- Always monitor both indoor and outdoor temperatures. Always follow health and safety regulations, such as the The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, when setting the appropriate temperature for your workplace indoors.
Disclaimer: the information provided in this article is for general guidance only and is not legal advice. This article is not a substitute for Health and Safety consultancy. For legal advice, you should seek independent advice .
Free Risk Assessment Toolkit
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