Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get
Last February, the notorious Beast from the East swept in from Russia bringing sub-zero temperatures and blanketing parts of the country in deep snow. This was swiftly followed by the coldest March on record, with wintry conditions causing shut-downs, travel chaos and construction delays across the UK.
The economic impact of the Beast from the East was estimated to be around £1bn a day, making it the costliest weather event since the snow and ice of 2010. This meant that the UK’s GDP growth slumped to just 0.1% in the first quarter of 2018. Civil engineering activity, which includes work on roads and bridges, was particularly badly hit, suffering its biggest monthly downturn in five years.
Sudden Stratospheric Warming
Extreme weather conditions and fluctuating temperatures are becoming the norm all over Europe. Already this year, the weather phenomenon referred to as Sudden Stratospheric Warming has brought heavy snowfall across Europe, badly affecting parts of Germany, Austria, Sweden and Norway, leaving roads blocked, trains halted, and schools shut.
So far, we in the UK have had a relatively benign winter with no significant snow disruption, but weather forecasters are currently expecting late January and early February to bring harsher wintry conditions across the whole of the UK.
Preparing for the worst
Scenes of snowdrifts across Europe serve as a timely reminder of the need for construction companies to make sure they have safety procedures in place so that they are well prepared if the bad weather spreads in our direction. It makes sense to draw up and circulate a checklist of health and safety actions that will need to be taken during adverse weather conditions.
Where workers are likely to be employed in icy conditions, it’s important to carry out risk assessments on a daily basis. This is particularly true where work involves height platforms, or contact with slippery surfaces. It’s advisable to check machine safety, as accidents can occur if plant or machinery malfunctions due to cold or ice. Making sure there’s enough lighting in and around the site will help employees spot and avoid hazards; treating icy paths and steps will help prevent trips and slips.
Protecting the workforce
Low temperatures affect health and safety in a number of ways. It can be harder to concentrate in the cold. Manual dexterity may be impaired, making accidents more likely.
Limiting workers’ exposure to extreme cold can help prevent accident and illness, so you need to make sure that they are wearing clothing that’s suitable for the conditions on site, such as water-resistant footwear with enhanced slip resistance or ice grips, and suitable head gear that doesn’t impede hearing or vision. Providing somewhere where workers can warm up and offering hot drinks is important too.
Ensure workers know how to spot the signs of hypothermia, such as severe fatigue, confusion or drowsiness, and extreme shivering. Remind everyone that they should look out for their fellow workers, and encourage them to report any hazardous areas or potential risks to the site manager.
The construction industry has long known that the unpredictability and power of our weather can cause unforeseen problems and delays. Weather forecasting isn’t always 100% accurate, and climatic history doesn’t always repeat itself, but it’s a wise precaution to be alive to the potential risks, and have some contingency planning in place.