As temperatures plummet to the lowest we’ve seen in the UK for seven years, any responsible employer should ensure that their outdoor workers are well protected from the elements. By conducting comprehensive thermal risk assessments, you can determine if you have the necessary processes, equipment and protective clothing in place to ensure your workforce remains motivated, productive, and above all, safe.
What Are the Risks?
The UK may not succumb to the harsh winters endured by many other countries, but temperatures certainly drop sufficiently low to lead to some unpleasant health conditions — the most common being hypothermia and frostbite. Even mild cases of hypothermia can lead to a worker becoming confused, disoriented and unsafe to work. Frostbite can cause exposed skin and the tissues beneath it to freeze — it is most commonly suffered in the fingers, toes, ears and nose. Both conditions may lead to more severe health complications.
Additionally, icy surfaces and poor light increase the risk of slips and falls, which could put a worker out of action for some time.
What Can I Do to Protect My Workers?
First, it is important to assess the level of thermal comfort of your workers under existing work practices and procedures. Thermal comfort encompasses a range of environmental, work-related and personal factors, including the amount and type of clothing worn. A simple way to access the level of thermal comfort in your workplace is to use Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) thermal comfort checklist.
If thermal comfort is lacking in your workplace, HSE recommends putting the following into place:
- Provide appropriate, high-quality protective workwear and PPE
- Provide mobile facilities for warming up
- Encourage drinking hot drinks and soup
- Allow more rest breaks so workers can warm up or change out of wet clothes
- Where possible, reschedule work for a warmer time of year
- Educate workers on recognising the early signs of cold stress
What Workwear Should I Provide to Keep Workers Safe?
One of the simplest and most effective ways to keep your workers protected in cold weather is to provide them with clothing and PPE appropriate for their role. Provide sufficient clothing to enable your workers to dress according to the three-layer principle. This will allow individuals to adapt their clothing to suit the weather and the activities being undertaken.
- Base Layer
Base layers and thermals provide a wicking layer that moves moisture away from the skin and helps to regulate body temperature. This is one of the most essential pieces of clothing, enabling employees to stay warm and dry. Consider providing leggings, long johns and thermal tops. Workers undertaking physical tasks are likely to build up a sweat, even in arctic temperatures. Without a base layer, clothing becomes wet and body temperature lowers, resulting in an uncomfortable and unproductive employee.
- Mid Layer
This “insulation layer” will keep workers warm. Depending on job role, consider providing fleeces, softshells, bodywarmers, sweatshirts or hoodies.
- Outer Layer
This protects against the elements, including wind, rain and snow. An outer layer should ideally be lightweight, waterproof and breathable. Consider your employees’ role to determine if a hard or soft shell is most suitable. For outdoor workers where safety is paramount, we would recommend high visibility clothing, including hi-vis jackets and trousers.
In addition to providing garments at all three layer levels, you should also consider sourcing appropriate boots, hats and gloves. For outdoor work, safety footwear should be waterproof with slip-resistant soles and highly durable to withstand repeated use in winter conditions. Hats help retain heat, but ensure that these do not interfere with protective headwear — a thermal hard hat liner may be a better option if worn with a safety helmet. Standard PPE gloves may not be designed for colder weather. Ensure that your workers are equipped with thermal gloves that also comply with safety guidelines.
It’s a good idea to refer to the safety standards, particularly those relating to high visibility and waterproof clothing. Safety boots with S3 HRO WR and SRC ratings would be suited to outdoor winter working, while gloves that have been tested to EN511:2006 are designed to withstand temperatures as low as -50°C.
By investing the time and money in properly assessing the working conditions of your employees, putting safe practices in place and providing protective clothing, you will increase the motivation, safety and productivity of your workforce.