Winter has arrived and brings with it colder temperatures. While some of us might be getting excited for Christmas, spare a thought for those who work outside or in poorly heated buildings. And while winter brings the cold to many of us, some people work in cold environments at other times of the year too.
Working on the roads, farms, and construction sites in winter can involve braving the elements in freezing temperatures. And it's not just people working outside who need to worry. Working in warehouses, factories, and even some offices in winter can also mean colder conditions. We have previously written about the dangers of working in hot weather and heat stress. But what about the cold?
If you've ever gone out in the cold weather without a coat or had your heating break in the middle of winter, you probably don't need reminding how uncomfortable and unpleasant feeling cold is. But the cold can be more than uncomfortable, especially for the vulnerable people. More people die in the winter than the summer, according to the office for national statistics.
Exposure to the cold can lead to shivering, reduced alertness, feeling unwell, and eventually, hypothermia which can be serious and even fatal.
Struggling with the cold? Here's 7 health tips for surviving winter work.
It's not just your health that can be affected by the cold. When the temperature decreases, the risk of accidents increases. Of course, there are other factors at play here. Wet and icy weather can increase slips. Shorter days can mean working in the dark. But the cold certainly has an impact that can't be ignored.
When you're cold, you start to lose the ability to concentrate. Shivering and numbness in your hands and body can prevent you from carrying out tasks with accuracy. And, you're more likely to take shortcuts just so you can finish up and get out of the cold.
While the weather might be outside of our control, heating, clothing and other controls can improve your thermal comfort. And, employers have legal responsibilities to provide a safe and healthy workplace. Let's look at what the law says when it comes to working in the cold.
7.—(1) During working hours, the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be reasonable.
Temperatures in the indoor workplace are covered by the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations. But this only says the temperature must be reasonable. And even then, only covers temperatures inside buildings (so not much use for outdoor workers).
And what is a reasonable temperature anyway?
Luckily, we have the approved code of practice (ACoP), which tells us that this should be at least 16 degrees. Although in some circumstances, where intense effort is involved, it can be as low as 13 degrees. And these are just guidelines. The ACoP even states that these requirements don't apply where it is not practical to apply them.
61 The temperature in a workplace should normally be at least 16 degrees Celsius. If work involves rigorous physical effort, the temperature should be at least 13 degrees Celsius...
62 These temperature guidelines do not apply where it would be impractical to maintain those temperatures, for example in rooms which have to be open to the outside, or where food or other products have to be kept cold. In such cases, the temperature should be as close to those mentioned in paragraph 61 as is practical.
While they are only guidelines, it certainly gives employers a benchmark as to what is reasonable, and what they should be looking to achieve. But all this just applies to work indoors. What about those that work outside? They are the people who are most at risk from the cold, surely?
Construction workers often find themselves out in the cold, so to speak. Much construction work is undertaken outside, or in unfinished (and often unheated) buildings. The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations (CDM) apply to all construction work and includes a section dedicated to temperature and weather protection.
- Suitable and sufficient steps must be taken to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that during working hours the temperature at a construction site that is indoors is reasonable having regard to the purpose for which that place is used.
- Where necessary to ensure the health or safety of persons at work on a construction site that is outdoors, the construction site must, so far as is reasonably practicable, be arranged to provide protection from adverse weather, having regard to—
- the purpose for which the site is used; and
- any protective clothing or work equipment provided for the use of any person at work there.
The regulations also state that rest facilities must be maintained at an appropriate temperature. It makes sense that workers need somewhere to warm up so that they can take a break from the cold.
But what if you work outside, but not in construction. CDM doesn't apply, so does anything go? Not quite. We can look at the guidance in the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations ACoP. The following guidance applies if you're working indoors, but in a place without suitable heating.
69 Suitable protective clothing and rest facilities should be provided in instances where local heating or cooling fails to give reasonable comfort. Where practical, there should be systems of work (eg task rotation) to ensure the amount of time individual workers are exposed to uncomfortable temperatures is limited.
This is good guidance for if you're working outdoors too. After all, employers have legal health and safety responsibilities to their employees. Above all else, employers must ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees. If employers fail to protect their team from the cold, and the health problems and safety issues that come with it, then this could be a breach of that legal responsibility.