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For many workplaces this festive season means a predictable increase in workload as businesses hurry to meet sales demand for Christmas day. This is especially true for warehouse operations and manual workers within retail and manufacturing industries.
As demand rises and the weather inevitably takes a turn for the worse, workplaces have a legal and moral responsibility to look after their workers in less favourable conditions. We’ve taken a look at the risks cold weather can have on a workplace and what workplaces can do to provide a safe working environment this winter.
Firstly it’s important to identify the legal requirements for working conditions relating to weather. Whilst there is no official law around when it is too cold to work, standard health and safety guidance recommends 16ºC for standard workers or 13ºC for those undertaking physical work.
Whilst we all dreamed of snow days off as children, the reality as a working adult can be more complex. Snow can lead to roads being unsafe to drive on, affecting your ability to get to your workplace in many cases.
If you are able to attend work, working outside or in extremely cold environments can lead to a host of health risks. Frostbite, immersion foot, shivering, dehydration and even hypothermia are risks if you aren’t working in safe temperatures for prolonged periods of time. Less extreme risks can be dry skin caused by low humidity and winter winds, which can cause cracked and even bleeding skin.
Like snow, ice means colder temperatures so it should be assessed as to what environment you will be working in and whether that will be warm enough to ensure employee safety. Ice increases risk of both driving and walking, causing high risk of slips and falls. On the roads drivers need to be careful of black ice, this is difficult to see and incredibly dangerous to drive on, meaning if you are aware of black ice in your area you should avoid driving at all costs. Make your workplace aware before your shift starts and discuss what your options are.
Ice in car parks and loading bays additionally increases risk of injury. Workplaces should take measures to secure outdoor-to-indoor areas before employees arrive. Cold temperatures from icy weather may also affect workers’ mobility and concentration, leading to lapses when lifting heavy objects or mistakes made when operating machinery. In all conditions appropriate equipment should be used to ensure workers are not lifting goods exceeding weight recommendations, where possible in warehouses, industrial trolleys can be used to move heavy goods safely. Lifting heavy objects with inappropriate lift aids can cause muscle strain and serious injury.
As with cold weather, there is no official legislation around working during extremely wet weather, although employers still have a responsibility to take care of staff appropriately. Many warehouse buildings may not hold up to extreme cases of torrential rain, as we saw Costco in Manchester flooded this past summer after stormy weather hit.
Leaking and flooding can lead to puddles of water inside buildings, leading to risk of slips and falls. For those working outside in very heavy rain, obstructed vision is a common risk, which could cause further accidents when operating vehicles or machinery. The rain itself poses a risk of reducing body temperature and cold stress - where the body struggles to maintain temperature, this again increases the risk of hypothermia for severe cases.
It’s important to assess weather conditions before setting off to work when a storm has hit recently. Trees and large objects may have fallen since you last went outside and may still be unstable, with the risk of falling further and crushing anything below. Electrical lines could have been damaged or exposed during stormy weather, do not approach these if you see them and contact relevant bodies to report incidents to. Be sure to gain knowledge of any risks on the roads before you attempt to commute.
If you’re at work when a storm of high winds hits, stay indoors whilst your workplace assesses the risk. If you are outside, move away from ledges of any high vantage points such as roofs with exposed edges. Consider the risk of unsecured structures which may fall over in winds, including temporary structures that could collapse with the wind force, and move away from these and get to a safer location. If it’s safe to, before a storm hits, move any loose items from outside to a secure inside space. Falling items swept away could be extremely hazardous to anyone outside during high winds, posing risk of injury if they are hit.
When working inside, such as in a warehouse environment, high winds could cause damage to buildings and lead to roofs being exposed from the inside. This could expose a risk of items falling through gaps and winds entering the building, increasing further threat of unsecured items injuring staff.
In all adverse weather your employer should assess risks and communicate what health assessments have been taken to ensure safe working environments.
A few steps employers can take in winter to protect staff include:
According to workplace relations body Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas), your employer may not offer paid leave if you can’t work due to poor weather. It’s always worth checking your employment contract and speaking to HR to check what policies your company has around adverse weather. In the event you are worried about not being paid for days off due to winter weather, ask your employer if you can move hours to another day or find a flexible agreement, such as if there is alternate admin work you could do from home for that day.
This is a myth, however workplaces do have a legal responsibility to maintain ‘reasonable working temperatures’. As previously mentioned, health and safety guidance provided by the government outlines advised minimum temperatures for workers as 16ºC for typical workers or 13ºC for those working in physically active jobs.
Although it is widely believed you should wear a hat in winter because most body heat is lost through our heads, this is false. Our head, face and chest may feel more sensitive to cold but it’s just as important to cover the rest of your body to keep warm in cold weather.
According to the NHS, this is partly true. Whilst colds are caused by catching viruses, NHS advice keeping warm through winter can reduce the risk of contamination. It is also important to practise good hygiene to reduce spread of infection, as keeping warm alone is not enough to prevent risk.
This is a myth. UV rays are still harmful throughout the winter, even when the weather is cloudy and overcast. Just because you can’t see the sun, doesn’t mean the risk is gone. Snow also can reflect up to 80% of the sun’s rays according to Skin Cancer Foundation, meaning you can still get sunburn in winter.
It’s false that you can never undertake physical exercise during cold weather, however it is important to know your limits and stay safe when undertaking physical work. Cold temperatures could mean your body has to work harder in physical activity. Prolonged exposure to cold can mean frostnip or hypothermia. Physical activity when it’s moderately cold is allowed and can carry some health benefits, such as increased metabolism and calorie burn, according to Aston University. It is also beneficial to keep blood circulating which additionally keeps your body warm.
This is a myth, in fact experts recommend layering thin clothing is more beneficial for keeping warm than wearing one bulky piece of clothing. Wearing items that are too bulky could lead to sweating whilst you work, when this moisture has nowhere to go it can be absorbed. Having layers of clothing you can add and remove to keep your temperature consistent gives you flexibility to adapt to a changing climate.
Frostbite itself isn’t very common, although frostnip affects far more people in the UK. Frostbite is when skin and tissues is damaged by exposure to colder weather and is more likely to affect those spending time outdoors through winter. Frostnip relates to the early stages of frostbite, such as numbness from the cold. Frostnip is common amongst workers during cold weather. The NHS estimates there are 30-60 cases of frostbite each year, with some years rising to 111.
It’s true that men and women experience temperatures differently, a 2015 study found women were typically more comfortable at a temperature 2.5ºC warmer than men - between 24-25ºC. Men’s higher proportion of body mass means more heat is produced involuntarily, ensuring they don’t feel the cold as much as women do. It’s important to consider this impact to ensure diversity and inclusion plays a part in workplace health and safety processes.
Depending on whether you qualify for DEI protections within your workplace, the case for discrimination could be made if your employer refuses to acknowledge reasonable adjustments you require when working in cold conditions. If you have a health condition that is more affected during these conditions, you should make this known to your workplace and discuss adjustments for your safety.
There are, of course, workers who will be more impacted by cold temperatures than others. Workers who suffer from skincare conditions, such as psoriasis or eczema, could be more sensitive to cold temperatures. Cold air is drier which can additionally impact those with breathing conditions more severely. Those with COPD or severe asthma can suffer breathing difficulties and increased coughing.
It is important for employers to factor this in to create a fair working environment as temperatures shift.
To keep your warehouse efficient and safe for transporting heavy goods this winter, get in touch to discuss how our trolleys could improve your warehouse operations.