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With the cold weather well and truly upon us, many organisations will be looking at how to keep their people safe. Some may have established snow and ice plans already, whilst others may be looking at compiling new plans now.
We’ve put together this handy guide to help you understand what you need to know when it comes to cold weather risk assessments.
Chilly working temperatures are rarely desirable for anyone, but they can be particularly dangerous for anyone already undertaking high-risk or outdoor work.
Uncomfortable cold working conditions can impair mental alertness and result in major lapses in concentration - it can also make people more likely to behave unsafely, because our ability to make good decisions is impacted. As we all know, cold can impact dexterity which impairs manual tasks. Both the mental and physical effects of working in cold weather can be more than enough to result in a serious accident - and this is before we’ve even considered the environmental hazards, like snow and ice!
A simple and effective tool, risk assessments are written using the HSE’s recommended guidance on five steps to risk assessment. Let’s talk through these steps with a focus on cold weather hazards.
The first step is to pinpoint what has the potential to harm people when working. For cold weather, this may be as simple as slips and trips from ice when walking around at work, an increased risk of hypothermia if working outdoors, or more treacherous conditions to navigate if driving for work.
Known as hazard identification, it’s a good idea to walk the area to understand what could harm anyone. It makes sense to always consult with the workforce as they understand their role and the working environment best, so they’ll be able to advise what new hazards are likely to arise with the changing conditions.
You also have the advantage of looking at forecasts to predict how long the weather will remain cold to determine what else may need to be done.
The second step is to take the hazards identified from the previous step, and understand who has the potential to be harmed and in what way(s). This step is crucial as there can be multiple groups of people that can be affected by works; starting with employees and clients, to subcontractors, visitors and trespassers to name a few.
This is also a useful stage to consider more complex issues such as protecting vulnerable persons that may need to be managed. Since we owe these people an extra duty of care, it makes sense to evaluate whether young persons, new and expectant mothers, or persons with an illness or disability can be affected by cold weather. Maybe you have an inexperienced apprentice starting to drive for work or an older worker whose arthritis becomes unbearable during cold weather.
The first step to take when evaluating what arrangements to put in place is completing a risk assessment. Whether this is an initial assessment or simply reviewing existing arrangements, a risk assessment will ensure the organisation has planned operations against weather conditions.
This leads on to understanding what potential injury or illness could arise if the hazard isn’t properly controlled.
So, once you have established the hazards and who can be affected, start thinking about how badly the person identified could be hurt, and how likely the harm can occur. This helps us assess the level of risk that the organisation is presented with, adding some simple science to try and qualify the risk.
Some organisations may choose to have a risk matrix where they assign values to help semi-quantify the risk through numbers and severity (high/medium/low) before deciding the risk outcome.
Once you have determined the level of risk for each identified hazard, the next part is to decide what to do about it. Known as risk management, many organisations choose to follow a ‘hierarchy of control’ that looks at a systematic way of eliminating, reducing or managing the risk. The most common one used remains an acronym known as ERIC PD. In the context of cold weather risk assessments, some examples include:
Once you have agreed on how the risks will be managed, it’s important to write all of your findings down. Documenting a risk assessment is a legal requirement where you employ more than 5 persons, but it makes business sense to capture the information for any size workforce to understand. Many organisations will have their own risk assessment template to capture this information or they may choose to use industry guidance such as the HSE website, or a free risk assessment template here.
An important aspect here isn’t just writing it down, it’s about sharing the information, so that the workforce is consulted and participates in the assessment process. By speaking with people, you can determine whether the assessment is an accurate reflection and that the controls will keep people safe. It’s also a chance to ask whether more can be done to keep work practices safer.
The final step involves one final check to make sure the assessment is still fit for purpose. You want to make sure that nothing has changed in the work environment since you started the assessment so that it remains effective in managing risk whilst working.
You may wish to conduct a dynamic risk assessment by taking a few minutes before starting work to double-check that the information captured will still protect people and that no other risks can be found.
There are other opportunities where you may wish to conduct an additional review as well: when a new person starts in the organisation, where the workplace has changed; where new equipment has been introduced; or when you have been made aware of a change in legislation that may affect your organisation.
It is at this step where you can take a step back and consider if the work can safely continue, and that you have done as much as you can to keep people safe. If the worst does happen, you have the confidence that you did as much as you could, and you can evidence this if it’s ever necessary.
Risk assessments for cold weather do not need to be complex.
By using the 5 steps to risk assessment, you can logically assess all the information and agree on arrangements in place to keep people safe. This process encourages a continuous feedback loop to help ensure that arrangements remain suitable and challenge whether anything more can be done.
If you are struggling to write a cold weather risk assessment or simply want some advice about the risk assessment process, speak to our teams - and stay safe as we brace for winter.
This article gives a basic overview of some of the essential measures that will need to be taken – you might find that your own workplace requires additional specific precautions