Demystifying the duty of care in winter months
Health and safety professionals are acutely aware that slips, trips and falls count for over half of workplace injuries and, in the treacherous conditions of a harsh winter, while the temperatures plummet, the risk soars. If a fall on ice or snow occurs, can your organisation rest assured that it has done everything possible to meet its duty of care?
The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 states that: ‘It shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees’. Part of that requirement involves providing a healthy and safe working environment but, during winter months when frost, snow and ice appear on and around business premises, sites, and properties, often at very short notice, this presents an added challenge.
But what constitutes a reasonable effort for protecting the health, safety and wellbeing of all employees, visitors, members of the public, and contractors who visit your organisation? Get it wrong, and the results can be disastrous. ‘Getting it right’ can avoid lengthy litigation cases, damage to reputation and huge financial loss.
Earlier this year, Janet L was awarded £8,500 for a major sprain when she slipped on icy snow outside her local supermarket. Her accident occurred in January, during a week when the weather had been unpredictable, in an area of the North East known for its tendency to experience particularly bad weather conditions during the winter. On the area where she slipped, there was had a patch of pre-existing ice which was covered by fresher snow, and neither had been salted, despite there having been regular snowfall for approximately two hours prior to the accident.
A recent claim against Newcastle University was found in favour of the defendant, when AB slipped on ice on the university premises causing an injury to her knee. A dedicated university team is responsible for snow clearance and gritting, which starts around 5.30am to treat the main routes before most staff and students arrive on site. The team has their own area of responsibility and complete reports to show the timing of any action.
Records showed that the path where the claimant fell had been cleared of snow and treated with grit between 9.30am and 10.15am on the morning of her accident. Due to the early start, the grounds staff finished work at 2pm on that day but the university has other measures in place. No further gritting was carried out around the staff entrance, but nor had there been any complaints.
The claimant argued that this system was not adequate, that grounds staff should have been on hand to carry out gritting after further snowfall. The judge found that the systems were adequate and that the university had complied with its duty to do everything reasonably practicable to keep surfaces free of slipping hazards.
Creating a completely risk free workplace is almost impossible. In the case of the university, however, they had a well thought out policy and prioritised procedure for dealing with icy conditions, supported by comprehensive documents to show what had actually been done. We can’t know all the threats and when they’re going to hit, but the essential thing is for businesses to be prepared. A comprehensive winter risk policy, robust management system, and good risk assessment processes are key safety measures.
Some good practice tips for effectively managing winter risk are:
- Incorporate a winter risk policy into the health and safety policy through a recognised health and safety management system such as OHSAS 18001
- Maintain records showing the plan has been delivered and keep them for a minimum of three years
- Document your proactive winter management plan and service activity, fully investigate accidents, and record all details
- Ensure your plan is based on real time accurate weather data and agree action triggers for service
- Carry out detailed bespoke site surveys and specifications with identified hazardous areas and specific gritting instructions
- Ensure you have adequate resources – a dedicated, trained team, sufficient salt supplies, safety checked gritting equipment and vehicles
- Regularly review your policies and plans
- Share winter risk plans with your broker/insurer