Winter Workplace Wellness: Stay Warm and Healthy

Environment By Rhiannon Davies

A close up of icicles dripping from a branch

Have you noticed the dark setting in earlier and a suspicious amount of Michael Bublé? These are surefire signs that winter’s arrived and with it, plummeting temperatures – read on to find out why health and safety is as important as ever this time of year, and how you can help keep people safe when cold weather hits.

Why is Health and Safety Important in the Workplace?

There are three main elements to recognising why health and safety is important: legal, moral, and financial.

It’s a legal requirement for organisations to protect the health and safety of their workers and anyone else that could potentially be affected by their activities. Failure to protect workers or members of the public can have serious legal consequences, including fines and sometimes imprisonment.

There’s a clear moral side to the importance of health and safety – you want to make sure that you and your colleagues can go home to your families at the end of the day. You also want to do everything you can to make sure that you aren’t going to develop any long term health conditions as a result of your work that can affect your quality of life.

Finally, there are the financial reasons. We’ve already mentioned the fines that can come from an organisation failing in their duty to protect workers, but there are other ways that a good approach to health and safety can have a positive effect on an organisation’s finances. Good health and safety can reduce down-time caused by accidents and illnesses, and reduce disruption to daily tasks. If people feel safe working within an organisation, then this creates a positive culture within the business which can help towards productivity and employee retention.

Who is Responsible for Health and Safety?

The short answer is everyone – from a practical point of view, everybody has a degree of responsibility for the health and safety of themselves and others around them. This can be done in small ways like making sure to set an example by wearing the correct personal protective equipment (PPE) or by making sure to report any potential hazards to the appropriate person.

From a legal standpoint however, it’s the employer’s duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees and anyone else who might be affected by work activities (such as members of the public walking by).

Employer’s responsibilities include:

  • Assessing all work activities that could potentially cause injury or illness and eliminating these hazards, or putting controls in place where this isn’t possible.
  • Providing all workers with information about these risks, including what steps are being taken to protect them from these risks.
  • Consulting workers on health and safety issues either directly or through a safety representative appointed by a trade union or the workforce themselves

 

Conducting a Risk Assessment

Risk assessments are the first step towards a safer and healthier working environment, and for the most part are extremely straightforward. Let’s split the most common hazards in to two separate hazards:

Outside Hazards

Although no two workplaces are ever quite the same, there are a few general hazards that should be considered whenever work is taking place outdoors for any amount of time:

  • Ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure – the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have identified construction workers as one of the most ‘at risk’ groups for skin cancer, due to the amount of time spent outside. The best precautions include ensuring you stay covered up, spending time in the shade or indoors during breaks if possible, and using high factor sunscreen. You can read HSE’s advice for how to protect outdoor workers from UV protection here.
  • Adverse weather – extreme wind, rain, snow, and lightning can severely impact a worker’s ability to safely work at height, and weather conditions require constant monitoring and reassessing.
  • Extremes of temperature – Extreme heat can cause dehydration, heatstroke and exhaustion, especially when paired with physically demanding work. You can read more about the dangers of heat stress in our article ‘PPE and Hot Weather: the Risk of Heat Stress’. Working for a prolonged period in the extreme cold can cause numbness (making the use of tools more difficult and therefore dangerous), as well as chilblains, hypothermia, and frostbite.

 

Inside Hazards

The types of hazard found in an indoor workplace can obviously vary greatly depending on the kind of work that’ happening. An office is likely to have very different types of hazards to a warehouse, workshop, or factory floor, however the following risks are likely to apply to most environments in one way or another.

  • Fire – Fire safety is one of the core principles of any health and safety policy, and is a hazard that is present in all working environments. Good practice includes making sure sockets are not overloaded, power cords are in good working condition, and any flammable materials are stored appropriately. All workers and site visitors should also be informed of what to do in the event of a fire.
  • Slips, trips, and falls – These are one of the most common types of injury in the workplace. They can be caused by anything from uneven flooring to cables trailing on the floor. The best way to prevent against these types of injury is to ensure that good housekeeping is practiced, workers wear appropriate footwear, and lighting levels are high enough that workers can properly see where they are walking.
  • Manual handling or ergonomic injuries – Repetitive movements, heavy lifting, and prolonged poor posture may not be all that harmful one a one-off basis, but month after month, year after year of poor practice can cause life-long health problems. Every worker should evaluate their workstation regularly to ensure it provides the best possible support for them, and employers should aim to reduce manual handling as much as possible. Once it’s been reduced as far as it can, then proper PPE such as back braces and lifting aids should be introduced where appropriate to prevent injury and workers should receive regular training on the correct way to lift heavy loads.

 

Common Winter Health and Safety Hazards

Health and safety is something that should always be refreshed to make sure that everyone’s staying as safe as they can.

The colder months are a great time to re-evaluate common health and safety hazards and how the time of year could cause them to change.

Common winter health and safety hazards include:

  • Snow and ice – not only does this impact trips and slips from people walking around outside, it also affects driving for work. Make sure all company vehicles are maintained properly (especially tyres) and only carry out essential journeys.
  • Less light – winter brings shorter days and therefore might mean more work activities will take place in the dark or low light. Outdoor workplaces should be well lit so that hazards can be seen, and indoor workplaces should have appropriate lighting levels to avoid eye strain, especially if any work is taking place with display screens.
  • Leaves – Fallen leaves can become extremely slippery when wet and decaying, and can also hide any hazards beneath them. Good housekeeping practice should include a procedure for regularly removing leaves and other natural debris.

 

Our Top Tips for Staying Safe in Winter

 

Protect Those Who Work Outside

Plummeting temperatures can bring illnesses like hypothermia, chilblains, and numbness in the hands and feet. Ensure anyone who needs to work outside has access to warm outer clothing like coats, gloves, and hats (make sure these are suitable for the task being carried out e.g heatproof gloves for welding). If work is being carried out outdoors in low light levels, workers will also need to be protected with high-visibility vests or coats.

Ensure Properties Are Maintained

It’s common for some workplaces to use electric heaters during the winter to keep rooms and workers warm.  Portable electric heaters are high-wattage appliances with a higher-than-average fire risk, and they have the potential to ignite nearby combustible materials like paperwork. Ensure any portable heaters are properly PAT tested, and boilers should receive a regular service.

Roofs and gutters should also be properly maintained throughout the year, as bad weather can exasperate existing problems and cause loose roof tiles to fall or icicles to build up in cold weather which can become dislodged.

Remove Trip and Slip Hazards

Trips and slips are always a present danger, but winter can bring new challenges to be aware of. As we’ve already mentioned, fallen and rotten leaves can become slippery to walk over and can cover up more serious trip hazards – spreading grit can also help to reduce slippery outdoor walkways if needed. Indoors, water from coats and umbrellas can also collect on the floor and create a slip hazard – regular mopping and mats, as well as a designated space to store outdoor clothes can help prevent this.

 

Be Weary of Colds and the Flu

Since the coronavirus pandemic, people have generally become more aware of how quickly a virus can spread in close quarters. If they’re not already available, having designated hand sanitising stations can help stop germs from travelling, as well as encouraging workers to use their own mugs, glasses and plates rather than having communal ones.

Consider Remote Working

Remote working is the easiest way to cut down on absence and presenteeism due to seasonal cold and flu – it stops transmission to others and for people who feel ‘under the weather’ can work from home while getting rest and hopefully stopping their illness getting any worse. Flexibility and understanding around illness can also work towards creating a positive culture within the workforce, which can help boost productivity and employee retention. It can also help support workers suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Participate in Health and Safety Training

Your brain is like a muscle – it needs to be exercised to keep it working! Regular health and safety training keeps the knowledge in the front of everyone’s mind and helps them stay aware of any change in legislation or best practice.

Important Questions on Winter Safety:

 

What is the Lowest Temperature to Work in Legally?

The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations require employers to provide a ‘reasonable’ indoor temperature in the workplace. There’s no one set temperature for this reason, as a ‘reasonable’ temperature will be different to different workplaces, – for example, you can expect a kitchen restaurant to be much warmer than an outdoor building site.

The Approved Code of Practice on the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations suggests the minimum temperature for working indoors should normally be at least 16°C or 13°C if much of the work involves rigorous physical effort, but this is not a legal requirement.

Can You Refuse to Work if It Is Too Cold?

Whether you can reasonably refuse to work will depend entirely on your circumstances and what steps have been put in place by your employer to reduce your discomfort. If frozen pipes have affected your ability to access drinking water and working toilets then you may have grounds to bring up concerns to your employer, as it’s their legal duty to provide these.

Refusing to work can result in disciplinary action from your employer, however in theory you can cite poor health and safety as a valid reason for stopping work in any legal proceedings this might generate.

How Do You Complain About Temperature at Work?

The easiest and most direct route is to bring it up with your manager. Employers have a responsibility to consult with their workers on health and safety matters, and they should take your concerns seriously and take steps to fix the problem. You can also address concerns with an employee or union representative if you have one. As a final measure, you can write to the Health and Safety Executive or your local environmental health manager.

Explore Our Health and Safety Courses

Now you’ve had a quick crash course on staying healthy and safe in the cold, why not expand your knowledge even further by taking one of our courses:

NEBOSH Working With Wellbeing E-Learning and Virtual Classroom

NEBOSH HSE Certificate in Managing Stress at Work Virtual Classroom

The January blues can sometimes outlast January – help support worker morale with our NEBOSH Working with Wellbeing and NEBOSH HSE Certificate in Managing Stress at Work courses, all of which can be studied remotely with our virtual classroom option.

NEBOSH HSE Award in Managing Risks and Risk Assessment at Work

Learn to recognise the risks in your workplace and take practical steps to control them and keep people from harm with this one-day course.

NEBOSH Introduction to Incident Investigation

Sometimes incidents happen – learn how to investigate them effectively and prevent them from happening again with this hugely popular one-day virtual classroom course.


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