Let it snow...

28 November 2019

Stephen Roots, past chair of The Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management (IWFM) warns that it is imperative that all those responsible for the facilities in which we work, understand their responsibilities and have a plan in place to counter those hard winter days.

As you read this article, the winter season is well and truly upon us. Predicting the weather is a perilous activity even with the accuracy of long term forecasting getting better and better each year.

Any accident or injury sustained on an organisation’s property can have serious repercussions. An ad hoc service approach to winter management is no longer adequate to support business confidence or continuity. It increases the risk of lost revenue, reputation and productivity resulting from accident liability claims or shut-downs caused by snow and ice. At the same time, unpredictable winters are also playing havoc with FMs’ planned preventative maintenance programmes, not to mention landscaping designs and air conditioning use.  

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 defines an employer’s duty of care obligation as: "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 this legal requirement involves providing a healthy and safe working environment. However, the duty of care extends beyond staff to anyone visiting, or passing by the facility, including suppliers on company business and members of the public. What is reasonably practicable?  

Organisations must be able to demonstrate that they have done everything reasonably possible to meet their duty of care and that they have met all health and safety legislation, when it comes to making a site safe for staff and customers during harsh winter weather. An adverse weather policy, that clearly communicates how an organisation will manage/take action in extreme weather situations to protect the health and safety of staff, is a key step towards meeting the duty of care in winter. Cold weather and shorter daylight hours create added risk and more potential for accidents to happen. It is important to prepare for what will happen and establish a framework of risk prevention.

The FM’s role in maintaining organisational resilience to extreme weather is vital for the country’s economy and status quo. The harsh winter of 2012/13, when salt shortages led to airports and public transport grinding to a halt, caught many by surprise. Businesses struggled to remain operational, while meeting their duty of care, making an unexpectedly large hole in some budgets. Many businesses were heavily affected, with employees not being able to travel to work and parents having to stay at home to attend to their children as schools were closed. Facilities in many cases were unsafe as the lack of salt meant car parks and pathways couldn’t be gritted, undoubtedly having a negative effect on British business.

Addressing cost pressures

One of the most fundamental reasons that the UK seems to be lagging behind other countries in managing extreme weather is that preparedness costs money. Looking at the short-term cost implications of having a winter maintenance plan in place detracts from the risk of the even greater financial burden and loss of reputation, should a business be found to neglect their duty of care and the health and safety of their employees by failing to tackle winter risks.

Creating a completely risk free workplace is almost impossible. However, having a well thought out policy and prioritised procedure for dealing with icy conditions, supported by comprehensive documents to show what had actually been done is critical. 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.

A clear plan will help insurers to refute any injury claims and a good quality winter maintenance/gritting and snow clearance procedure providing evidence to prove all measures have been taken to avoid incidents. In the event of a claim, evidence of a proactive winter maintenance plan will help to ensure that the business is covered by its liability insurance. This could even have a positive impact on insurance premiums and should always be shared with insurers.