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October 12, 2017

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“Winter is coming”: managing seasonal health and safety risks

With the nights drawing in and temperatures dropping, one thing is certain: winter is coming. As tempting as it is to be drawn in by the season’s celebrations, businesses should not rest on their laurels and must recognise the unique challenges presented during the winter months.

Not only can low temperatures, minimal sunlight and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) associated with the time of year put a serious dampener on workforce moral, they can also prove a serious threat to staff safety and wellbeing.

Additionally, adverse weather conditions are a particular health and safety concern for businesses employing workers operating outdoors, who need to be able to conduct everyday tasks comfortably regardless of wind, rain and the cold.

No complacency

Health-related absenteeism has long been a concern for businesses over the winter months, and while recent years have seen a drop in the number of people taking time off work due to ill health, this should not cause organisations to become complacent as UK businesses still lost a collective 4.3 days per worker in 2016.

A recent study by The Lancet has also found that a total of 77% of flu carriers displayed no symptoms whatsoever[1], making it vital that steps are taken to prevent cross-contamination throughout the workplace.

In their attempts to decrease absenteeism, employers often make the mistake of discouraging sick days. In forcing employees who are ill to come to work regardless, employers are extending the sickness period of the staff member in question, who may not be allowing themselves to rest and recuperate sufficiently, putting all other staff at risk of infection. As a result, organisations can end up losing entire swathes of the workforce rather than the odd one or two employees, and may find themselves running on skeleton staff.

If employees know they are ill, and suffering from a fever, they should stay at home until at least 24 hours after the fever has gone, limiting the risk of contagion and also ensuring the unwell employee is fully recovered before returning to work.

Comprehensive tactics

Instead of trying to limit an already existing problem, however, planning and implementing comprehensive tactics ahead of time is the best way to minimise illness-related disruption.

One important factor to bear in mind is heating. A cold office can not only be a health hazard but can also damage employee morale. It is best to consult Government guidelines and make sure to keep offices at the required minimum temperature of 16 degrees, whilst regularly consulting staff as to preferred comfortable working temperatures.

Similarly, it is important not to allow offices to become overly warm. Stuffy offices are uncomfortable, can lower productivity and are a potential breeding grounds for germs, so striking a balance is key.

Intelligent ‘climate-controlled’ office heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems may be pricey, but their installation could actually save money down the line, as they help to ensure that the workplace remains at a comfortable temperature all year round. The UK’s winter weather is notoriously temperamental, so automated systems can be hugely helpful in adapting to changeable conditions.

Compliant PPE

Employees who frequently work outside in the open air experience higher risks to their physical safety, especially during harsh or unpredictable weather conditions. As such, it is vital that adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is provided. Since 1992, employers have been legally required to provide workers with adequate equipment related to their specific working conditions and must make every effort to check that all PPE equipment is compliant and suitable to the working environment in which it is used.

For instance, in the biting cold of winter, employers may be quick to assume that thick gloves are imperative for their employees’ comfort. However, many outdoor jobs require manual dexterity for the operation of equipment or completion of tasks requiring fine motor skills and large or bulky clothing may not be appropriate. This is why planning and awareness of available products is vital. In this case, employers should seek out alternative gloves, made of material which is protective but also allows for freedom of movement, whilst also protecting from the cold.

Waterproofing is also important for outdoor workers and it goes without saying that wet weather should be a consideration for businesses employing outdoor workers, especially during the winter months which often bring with them months of constant rain, sleet or snow. Staff need to know that their PPE will guarantee them protection from wet-weather related illnesses, whilst also keeping them warm and dry, without allowing them to overheat.

The UK’s winter weather is famously temperamental and hard to predict. Therefore, employers should plan for every eventuality, as well as considering every aspect of indoor and outdoor workers’ needs to ensure their wellbeing and productivity are not affected over the colder months. By planning ahead carefully in this way, businesses can avoid suddenly finding themselves unequipped, unproductive and understaffed and can ensure a smooth and safe transition into the winter season.

George Hand is a sales manager in cleaning, hygiene and catering at business solutions provider Office Depot.


What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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