Winter wellbeing in construction
Construction sites can be hazardous places at the best of times but during the autumn and winter months the risks to the health, safety and wellbeing of workers increase. It is important to ensure procedures are in place to protect staff as the days grow shorter and temperatures fall, says OnSite Support’s Damian Lynes.
According to the Health and Safety Executive’s 2018 statistics, nearly a quarter of the 58,000 non-fatal injuries to construction workers each year are caused by slips, trips or falls, the risks of which obviously increase over the autumn and winter, with shorter days, falling leaves, wet weather, ice and snow.
The risk of other accidents also rises at this time of year. For example, people can rush jobs to get out of the cold and may lose concentration, increasing the risk of mistakes being made; or numb fingers could mean dropped tools or materials.
Cold and wet weather can take a toll on people’s physical and mental wellbeing too: the heart has to work harder in colder temperatures, people can become tired much faster and shorter days can lead to depression and Seasonal affective disorder.
So, having a clear strategy in place for colder, darker months can not only keep people safer and healthier but can also help maintain productivity and reduce the potential impact on the bottom line. Here are some things to consider:
Ensure staff take regular breaks in a warm, dry space
People can become more tired more quickly in colder weather, so it is crucial to ensure they take regular breaks (more frequently than at other times of the year), to reduce the risk of accidents. Providing a warm and dry refuge, where workers can have a warm drink, dry off and even change clothing (bearing in mind the need to provide separate changing rooms for men and women), can raise morale and improve productivity.
Make sure pedestrian routes and working areas are safe
With the risk of slips, trips and falls increasing, it is important to ensure pedestrian routes and working areas are well-lit and kept clear of potential hazards. So, ensure leaves are swept up (or cut down trees if necessary); grit paths, place mats at entrances, invest in signage and put up lighting in areas with lots of traffic. It is also a good idea to discourage people from taking shortcuts across grass or muddy ground, as they can quickly become slippery.
Of course, like at any other time of the year, site clothing – from storm weather jackets to thermal hard hat liners and face masks – has to be comfortable, safe and appropriate for the conditions. Hi-vis clothing is particularly important when working outside at this time of year, with low light and poor visibility conditions – 9% of the 38 fatalities in construction in 2018 were caused by being struck by a moving vehicle.
However, it is worth considering that people can still become uncomfortably warm carrying out physically-demanding tasks, even on the coldest days, and may remove clothing, putting themselves at risk – again, regular breaks are a great way of dealing with potential issues.
As well as protecting workers hands from harm, winter gloves should also comply with EN511:2006 Gloves giving protection from cold. This standard applies to any gloves providing protection down to -50°C; they should offer resistance to convective cold, contact cold and water. They also need to balance safety with thermal protection, because dexterity has to be largely unaffected (to avoid the situation where they are taken off by the wearer, to allow them to carry out a task).
Footwear needs to be durable, comfortable and above all, safe – a decent pair of safety boots will improve performance, as workers can stay on their feet for longer. For the colder months, as well as complying with EN ISO 20345:2011 Personal protective equipment – safety footwear, boots and shoes should be fully waterproof (with a WR classification) and insulated against the cold (the CI classification indicates the upper has been tested for insulation against the cold down to -17°C).
Dropped tools can be lethal on site and the risk increases in cold and wet weather, as hands become cold and numb. While most tools are not designed for working at height specifically, there is a wide range of belts, harnesses and tethers for almost all handheld tools, from spanners to power drills, designed for any number of tasks.
Keeping communal areas clean and hygienic is particularly important during the winter months, with more people suffering from colds and flu. Educate site workers on the importance of washing hands after using the toilet, ensure kitchens are wiped down (and dried thoroughly) – it is better to clean things after use, rather than once a week. The NHS recommends that disposable cloths or paper towels are preferable to prevent the spread of germs; reusable cloths should be disinfected and washed at 60°C.
Here, SHP looks at how to reduce occupational skin disorders when working outdoors in the winter.
According to the HSE, there were an estimated 14,000 work-related cases of stress, depression or anxiety (new or long-standing), in construction last year (or about one sixth of ill-health in the sector).
The winter months can be hard for some people, particularly those suffering from Seasonal affective disorder. So, as well as ensuring workers keep an eye out for signs of physical symptoms (such as fatigue, drowsiness and shivering) in both themselves and their colleagues, they should also be made aware of the signs of mental health issues; employers should also provide easy access to advice and support.
Together, these elements will provide a basis for a clear strategy that will keep workers as warm, dry and comfortable as possible, protecting their health and wellbeing, while maintaining productivity during the colder months.
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