Working safely in the winter

8th December 2021

Winter weather has the potential to hit the UK hard, with strong winds, freezing temperatures, snow, ice, and lots of rain. All these elements can cause hazards for construction workers on site. As the weather is uncontrollable and unpredictable, taking precautions to ensure site operatives stay safe is essential.

Low temperatures

Temperatures that fall to near or below freezing can be dangerous to a person’s health. They can cause skin and internal body temperatures to drop. In addition, if rain causes the skin to become damp this will contribute to heat loss from the body, and the body may not be able to warm itself up. All of this can cause serious illnesses that can result in permanent tissue damage or, in more serious cases, death. Trench foot, frostbite and hypothermia are potential hazards if workers are not properly protected from the elements when working outside.

Slips, trips, and falls in ice, frost and snow

Falls are one of the most common construction site accidents and they can happen all year round. However, winter weather increases the risk of falls due to ice and wet, slippery surfaces. When surfaces become cold, ice can accumulate on scaffolding, ladders, walkways, stairs, and work platforms. If these areas are not treated correctly, they can cause workers to slip and fall, sometimes from height, causing injuries such as broken bones, fractures, traumatic brain injuries, and even death.

  • To reduce the risk of slips on ice, frost, or snow, you need to assess the risk and put in a system to manage it
  • Identify the outdoor areas used by pedestrians most likely to be affected by ice, for example: building entrances, car parks, pedestrian walkways, shortcuts, sloped areas, and areas constantly in the shade or wet
  • Monitor the temperature, as prevention is key
  • You need to take action whenever freezing temperatures are forecast. Keep up to date by visiting a weather service site such as the Met Office or the Highways England
  • There are also smart signs on the market, available to buy at low cost, which display warning messages at 50 and below
  • If warning cones are used, remember to remove them once the hazard has passed or they will eventually be ignored
  • Put a procedure in place to prevent an icy surface forming and/or keep pedestrians off the slippery surface
  • Use grit or similar, on areas prone to be slippery in frosty, icy conditions
  • Consider covering walkways e.g., by an arbour high enough for people to walk through, or use an insulating material on smaller areas overnight
  • Divert pedestrians to less slippery walkways and barrier off existing ones

Driving incidents

Driving incidents don’t just happen on the roads, they can also happen on construction sites. Being on a construction site, it is easy to forget that winter driving rules for the road still apply. It is also important to remember that construction vehicles aren’t usually as agile as cars because of their size and weight. It’s a good idea to carry a survival pack in your vehicle(s), including food, water, an extra blanket, and extra warm clothes. Here are our top 10 tips for winter driving:

  1. Ensure your phone battery is fully charged and you have an in-car charger.
  2. Put a shovel in your boot – in case you need to dig yourself out of trouble.
  3. Consider fitting winter tyres, but even if you don’t, have your summer tyres checked. Winter driving means that tyres should have no less than 3mm remaining tread.
  4. Have your battery checked. Batteries have to work extra hard in the cold and are more likely to fail.
  5. Make sure your windscreen washer fluid is topped up with the correct concentration of screen wash. Windscreens get particularly dirty in the winter months and screen wash will help prevent the liquid from freezing.
  6. Have your coolant checked – the antifreeze needs to protect your engine against the lowest of temperatures.
  7. Have your air-con system serviced. It’s not just for summer – an effective air-con system will demist windscreens much more quickly, helping visibility.
  8. Adjust your driving style to the conditions – be sensible in the rain, snow, and ice.
  9. Above all, in bad conditions consider whether your journey is necessary.

Preventing accidents on a construction site

Limit any exposure to the elements by shielding certain work areas from the weather, protecting the construction workers from potential harm.

Keep updated with weather reports, giving enough time to carry out any procedures necessary to ensure workers stay safe. Such measures could include:

  • Shielding any areas that could be worst hit by the weather
  • Creating warm break areas so that construction workers can warm up
  • Scheduling outside work to be carried out in shorter durations, ensuring employees do not have to face the elements for long periods of time
  • Providing the correct gear so when employees are working outside, none of their skin is exposed and they are fully insulated to retain body heat and prevent the cold weather affecting them
  • Educating employees about how to work safely when the bad weather hits and what to do to prevent any accidents
  • Checking the site for any new hazards that could have been caused by the bad weather

Gritting

The most common method used to de-ice the ground is gritting because it’s relatively cheap, quick to apply, and easy to spread. Rock salt (plain and treated) is the most used ‘grit’. It’s the same substance that’s used on public roads by the Highways authority.

Salt can stop ice from forming and can cause existing ice or snow to melt. It’s most effective when ground down, but this will take far longer on pedestrian areas than on roads.

Gritting should be carried out when frost, ice, or snow is forecast or when walkways are likely to be damp or wet and the ground temperatures are at, or below freezing. The best times are early in the evening before the frost settles and/or early in the morning before workers arrive. Salt doesn’t work instantly; it needs sufficient time to dissolve into the moisture on the ground.

If you grit when it’s raining heavily, the salt will be washed away, causing a problem if the rain then turns to snow. Compacted snow, which turns to ice, is difficult to treat efficiently with grit. Be aware that the ‘dawn frost’ can occur on dry surfaces when early morning dew forms and freezes on impact with the cold surface. It can be difficult to predict when or where this condition will occur.

Working outside any time of the year can be extremely dangerous. Always make sure employees are safe, helping to reduce onsite injuries and fatalities.

Sources: HSE and Designing Buildings