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January 6, 2010

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Winter maintenance – gritting in icy conditions

Icy conditions are prevalent at this time of year, making winter gritting an issue for employers and premises owners. Alastair Kight explains what is required to fulfil your duty of care and prevent accidents in slippery conditions.

Earlier this year, an article on SHP’s website1 looked at the myths and legends that have built up around safety management. It was a great article that offered a dose of common sense about this industry’s ‘Holy Grail’: the pursuit of zero lost-time accidents. However, I was dismayed to see that slipping in snowy conditions was cited as an example of an unavoidable “life risk”.

Broadly speaking, the argument was that because the HSE advises companies that they don’t need to reduce onsite risks to anything less than the normal “life risks” people face every day, then a slip in the snow may not be a work-specific risk that needs attention. Of course, what constitutes a “life risk” is very subjective, and yes, a line must be drawn somewhere but, in my view, snow and ice are not a good place to start.

The risks from wintry conditions are very real. Slips and trips account for the majority of accidents in the workplace, a situation that gets much worse outdoors when car parks and paths around premises ice over. Perusing NHS hospital admissions records reveals that slips on ice directly cause thousands of bed days of hospital treatment each year.2 Yes, the majority of falls on snow or ice usually only result in bruised dignity – and occasional embarrassment is surely a “life risk” that we’ll all accept as unavoidable – but the cold, hard figures on hospitalisations are a clear warning against complacency.

Legally, the position of employers and property owners is pretty clear. The Occupiers’ Liability Act states that property owners have a duty of care to maintain safe access for visitors to premises. This means taking reasonable steps to clear ice or snow from access ways.

When the worst happens and someone is injured in the workplace as a result of slipping on ice, compensation comes into the equation. Personal injury claims in the case of an accident are likely to be very significant, with the final bill likely to cover legal costs, the claimant’s personal injury damages, and even loss of earnings.

Fortunately, businesses do have some protection via their insurance policies. For example, many of the direct costs of contesting a claim will usually be covered by public liability insurance policies. However, for these to be valid, a business must be able to demonstrate that it has taken reasonable steps to mitigate avoidable risks.

Businesses are learning this lesson through bitter experience, with the result that a “winter maintenance industry” has emerged, and is growing. Often, the task of gritting premises – if undertaken at all – falls to facilities management, landscaping teams, or even general company admin staff. Where external contractors are used they range from highly-professional facilities management organisations to ‘man-and-van’ operators. The point is that standards and approaches can, and do, vary widely.

Many organisations have reclassified gritting as being a risk-management issue that involves a greater amount of planning and process to mitigate liability, and which demands an increasingly professional way of doing things. What does this mean in practice? Perhaps an easy way to think about this is that winter gritting is now as much about paperwork as shovel work!

Practical steps to effective winter risk management

Hopefully, having set the scene, the term “winter risk management” should not seem so strange. In order to get it right, dutyholders should consider the following:

1. Advance assessment of premises

Whether snow and ice clearance is fulfilled in-house or outsourced, it is important that the site, or sites, are surveyed ahead of time to identify and agree with operators which areas need to be gritted, and how to do so. This helps ensure that the right equipment is procured or provided. Larger areas, like car parks or access roads, may require gritting vehicles for fast and efficient treatment. Manual spreaders and shovels will be needed to handle paths and stairs.

For premises where car parks or paths are shared between different companies, it is also very important to agree the boundaries. Partly gritting another company’s property can create an impression that these areas have all been made safe; and the company doing the gritting could then be implicated in creating a greater risk.

2. Resource the task appropriately

Winter gritting of car parks and paths can be time-consuming, so sufficient staff should be allocated to the task. Make sure that time is set aside for training, or set aside resource for external contractors, if this option proves more cost-effective. It is very easy to overlook staff costs, and using undertrained staff who fail to do the job adequately can open up a business to the very risks that gritting aims to avoid.

One case that I encountered involved an organisation in the medical sector that was using its onsite maintenance teams to do the gritting. This meant that the likes of electricians – well-paid and trained professionals in their own discipline – were spreading salt rather than doing their day job. What was worse was that the organisation still had to deal with – and in certain cases pay out for – five personal injury claims in that year alone as a result of slips on ice.

This scenario could probably have been avoided through better training. Along with knowing the best equipment to use, the training provided for staff can ensure that the right volume of salt is spread to be safe but not wasteful, and that the coverage is uniform. Training should also take into account environmental considerations – for example, accidentally spreading material over flower beds can cause needless damage that can be avoided by using the right equipment and techniques.

3. Prevention is better than cure

Increasingly, gritting is going hi-tech. Using road-surface temperature forecasts, it is possible to anticipate heavy frosts to make sure gritting jobs are only instigated when there is a real risk and, conversely, that grit isn’t spread needlessly. Over the season this can help reduce costs.

4. Grit according to conditions

Monitoring weather conditions will also make it possible to actively manage how much material to spread, and when. When using salt, rain and wet surface conditions can risk washing the material away and reduce its effectiveness. In these conditions it is probably appropriate to set spreading devices to put down more grit per square metre.

Gritting should be delayed to as late as possible; look at when workers or customers start to come on site. For the majority of workplaces this is usually around 7am, so set a cut-off point several hours ahead of this as the latest point at which gritting can begin.

5. Check the insurance status of contractors

If outsourcing, companies should check the insurance status of their service provider. A professional operator is likely to provide you with a much greater level of protection from liability than the “man and van”.

6. Document your work

Documenting work is vital to demonstrate that action has been taken to fulfil duty-of care obligations. It is worth noting that when dealing with unpredictable conditions, there may still be a risk that an accident could happen, even when everything has been done to reduce this possibility. Should this occur and a personal injury case is brought, then insurers and lawyers will need a detailed record. This can include everything from GPS logs of gritting-vehicle visits, to records of ground conditions, weather, quantity of grit remaining from previous visits, and quantity spread on the day.

As with any safety process it is important to ensure that the process of measurement doesn’t become overly complex. It is a tool, and not an end in itself. Developing forms, or using technology to build recording into the process in a streamlined way, will help ensure ongoing compliance.


1 Smith, P (2009): ‘Shifting sands’, on SHPonline at

2 Hospital Episode Statistics online –


Alastair Kight is managing director of GRITIT

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