Info Bite 183: How to protect construction workers in adverse weather

How to protect construction workers in adverse weather

Poor weather conditions can put workers at risk and seriously disrupt work, but implementing common-sense precautions and reviewing safety protocols can make winter much less hazardous.

If there’s one thing that makes an already dangerous construction site even more hazardous, it’s winter weather. Rain, wind, snow and plummeting temperatures can all make outdoor work even more perilous for construction workers, putting them at risk of cold stress, slips and falls, and accidents involving machinery and vehicles. When the mercury drops, it’s time to review winter safety protocols to make sure you’re offering the right equipment and training to keep staff safe throughout the season.

By far the biggest risk to employees during winter work is cold stress. This is when the body becomes too cold to maintain a healthy temperature, and if left untreated it can lead to serious illnesses like hypothermia and frostbite.

It could be a good idea to hold a refresher session to ensure that all employees can recognise the early symptoms. Workers should also know exactly what to do if they suspect that someone else is suffering, including how to provide basic first aid and who to report potential cases to. It will also be helpful to provide some insight into how different weather conditions can exacerbate symptoms of cold stress: for instance, many people underestimate the impact of wind chill and rain on body temperature.

While it’s the duty of the employer to provide any necessary PPE required to do the job, there’s nonetheless an element of personal responsibility for staff, too. Team members need to know how and when they should be using their winter clothing, and be vigilant about taking care of themselves physically during tough weather conditions. The HSE website offers more information about cold stress, including resources for risk assessments and employee training.

All health and safety managers know that warm protective clothing is essential during winter work, but there’s another consideration: clothing should be tailored to staff preferences and activity levels. Employees are much more likely to use their PPE correctly if it’s comfortable and does not restrict their movements, so consult them and offer them a choice of clothing and accessories.

For instance, during high-intensity jobs like shovelling or lifting heavy loads, workers will require lighter layers, while less strenuous tasks like sweeping may require a thicker overcoat.

It is also sensible to offer a choice of different accessories: for instance, some staff may prefer helmet liners to hats, or balaclavas to scarves. Certain tasks, such as operating machinery, will also require thinner gloves which allow more dexterity. The UK climate is also far from predictable, so encourage staff to keep extra layers on site with them in case of sudden weather changes.

Ice and snow can make even straightforward tasks very hazardous, so it is advisable to take measures to make surfaces less slippery during poor weather. The simplest way to help reduce the risk of a fall is to prevent ice from forming in the first place: exposed surfaces should be gritted whenever the weather is forecast to drop to 2°C or lower. Keep a close eye on your grit supplies, and do not be afraid to order more than you think you will need, as you may struggle to restock during a prolonged cold spell when supplies can be low.

All workers should also be equipped with boots that offer good grip on slippery surfaces. Heavy construction vehicles and equipment will also struggle to gain traction in icy weather, so it’s well worth considering adding winter tyres to mobile machinery wherever possible.