Workplace safety in extreme weather

26 March 2018

Employees who regularly work outdoors will usually face additional risks compared to those who work indoors, whether from uneven ground and physical hazards or from adverse weather conditions. As employers, it is possible to put a variety of measures in place to reduce the risk of accidents – but it is impossible to prevent them entirely.

When it comes to working weather conditions, it isn’t hard to predict that the likelihood of accidents and employee health concerns will be raised by adverse conditions like high winds, heavy rain or even extreme heat in the height of summer. Appropriate health and safety training for all staff will ensure that there’s no excuse for risky behaviour, but it’s up to employers to put additional safeguards and processes in place for conditions like snowfall, heatwaves and thunderstorms.

Extremes of temperature

There are no legal minimum or maximum temperatures for outdoor work, but as an employer you have a duty of care to your colleagues which makes their health and safety your responsibility. 

Working in very hot environments can be just as damaging to employee health as working in the freezing cold, and decisions will need to be made about the best ways to protect workers from serious health conditions like hypothermia, frostbite or heatstroke. Carry out a risk assessment to establish key causes for concern and how to avoid them.

Key preventative measures to remember include:

  • Personal Protective Equipment
  • Regular breaks
  • Provision of hot drinks or cold water
  • Rescheduling work to warmer or cooler parts of the day
  • Educating your team about the early symptoms of heat stress and cold stress

Personal Protective Equipment and clothing can act as both a preventative measure for thermal discomfort and a potential cause, so it’s important to get it right. Allowing regular breaks for staff to remove heavy or hot PPE when working at high temperatures is just as important as ensuring that suitable clothing is provided for cold environments. Heavier-weight high-vis jackets, thermal gloves and other similar attire are all things that should be available to employees who are required to work in freezing or near-freezing temperatures.

Whichever extreme of weather your workers face, rest breaks need to be long enough for workers to fully warm up or fully cool down, and as an employer it’s your duty to make sure that a suitable shaded or insulated breakout space is available. Inability to escape the sun can lead to severe sunburn and blistering, heatstroke and an increased risk of skin cancer, while being subjected to freezing conditions for extended periods could put your employees at risk of frostbitten extremities and hypothermia. Even on a mild day, wind chill can make working in the open air bitterly cold.

Providing hot drinks or cold drinking water can help workers to warm up or cool down quickly during breaks, and ideally these should be consumed in those thermally appropriate break areas. Mobile facilities should be kept insulated and dry, with heaters or fans provided as appropriate.

It may be that your thermal risk assessment finds that the risks are too high at peak times; working in the midday sun in a summer heatwave, or in the coldest parts of the night in winter. If this is the case, you may need to make the decision to reschedule work to less dangerous parts of the day to protect your staff.

Lastly, making sure that all team members can spot heat-related medical symptoms would be a wise move for any employer, whether you’re on the ground with workers or managing the situation from afar. If co-workers can identify symptoms of heat exhaustion and the onset of hypothermia, they can raise the alarm and help to ensure that problems don’t escalate further.

High-speed winds 

Knowing the difference between a windy day and potentially fatal wind conditions is not always easy, though some situations may be clearer than others. Working in high-speed winds is particularly dangerous for those who are working at height, but there are still serious safety risks for those at work on the ground in construction sites or other areas where displaced debris could become a hazard.

For those working at height, a lack of shelter means exposure to stronger winds that can knock people off-balance, and without the right safety measures in place, this could cause a lethal fall. Anyone working above 1.5m should be wearing a harness connected to an anchor point. At ground level, workers are at risk from the movement of loose materials and unsupported structures.

According to the Health and Safety Executive, falls from height caused 49% of fatal injuries to construction workers between 2012 and 2017, as well as 18% of non-fatal injuries. 13% of non-fatal injuries were caused by being struck by flying/falling objects.

Responsible employers must keep tabs on weather forecasts and ongoing conditions when scheduling staff to work at height. If strong winds are predicted, avoid scheduling any elevated work and ensure that scaffolding is secure, and partially built structures or stacks of goods and materials are properly braced and supported. This can prevent staff from being harmed by falling walls or flying objects.

For those who are working on the ground during high winds, remember to put the following safety measures in place:

  • Eye protection should be worn to keep out dust and debris
  • Hard hats must be securely fastened
  • Caution should be used when moving large flat materials like wood, which can catch the wind and act as a sail
  • Cranes and hoisting equipment should cease to be used until winds have settled down
  • Tools and other loose materials must be secured, both on the ground and in elevated working areas

If you’re unsure at what windspeed to cease elevated work, or to cease all outdoor work completely, the Beaufort Scale for Construction Workers may help. Note that in winds strong enough to break branches or remove shingle and slate from rooftops, all outdoor work should be ceased and rescheduled.

Heavy rains

Slips, trips and falls are the most common cause of injury in any workplace, be it indoor or outdoor, with around 30% of workplace accidents every year falling into this category. Unsurprisingly, you’ll find that instances of injury caused by slipping and lack of grip increase dramatically when working in heavy rains. 

Slips can be combatted by providing safety boots with sufficient tread, and by securely storing loose items that could wash away and cause hazards, but these are not the only risks posed to employees working in wet conditions.

Enforcing the use of high-visibility clothing should be second nature in outdoor working environments, but heavy rains mean particularly poor visibility and making sure workers adhere to high-vis rules is crucial, particularly in areas with heavy machinery and vehicle traffic. If rain gear has become dull and is no longer reflective, it needs to be replaced.

It’s also important to make sure that the correct equipment is being used when working in heavy rains. Electrical tools and similar equipment that are not specifically rated for use outdoors are unlikely to be safe in wet conditions, due to lacking in proper protection for electric circuits and nonslip handles.

While many issues arising from working in the rain can be tackled with appropriate waterproof clothing, anti-fog spray for goggles and slip-proof grips, remember that continued exposure to cold rains can cause the body to drop in temperature. As with extremes of temperature, encouraging regular breaks where workers can dry off is necessity.

Taking precautions

When it comes to employee safety in extreme weather conditions, the key is to prioritise awareness and preparation. British Safety Council's policy director Louise Ward underlines the importance of maintaining safety during extreme weather, saying: “Understanding the risks of adverse weather conditions is the first step in keeping your workforce safe. By undertaking key safety training and establishing best practice control measures you can reduce risks on site, even in the toughest conditions.”