Last reviewed 18 January 2013

Martin Hodgson gives some advice on how to cope with extreme weather conditions.

Introduction

Snow and ice have brought disruption to the UK. Schools need to revisit their procedures for dealing with extreme weather conditions.

Government advice states that the decision on whether to close a school or not must be taken by Heads who know their schools and the surrounding areas.

Winter risks

The decision about whether or not to close a school due to winter weather is a complex one and usually involves an assessment of the risk of staying open. Getting staff and children to and from school is probably the major factor and this largely depends on local driving and travel conditions. In exceptional circumstances, a local authority, in collaboration with the police and highways agencies, may order a blanket closure of all community and voluntary-controlled schools, but not foundation or voluntary-aided schools or academies. In addition to local road conditions, snow and ice around the school site will also be a key factor. Slips, trips and falls are the most common cause of non-fatal injuries to UK workers. Winter is a particularly bad time for such incidents with the combination or wet or icy conditions combining with extra hours of darkness.

Lack of heating due to boiler or power failure is another obvious risk. Fire is less obvious but the risks of workplace fires increase in the winter due to people utilising different forms of heating in an effort to stay warm.

In addition to the above risks there are also the problems of cold itself, of floods and power cuts, and of driving in the winter. Driving-related injuries and deaths peak during the winter and hazardous driving conditions can affect staff on their way to and from work.

Contingency planning and school closures

It is important that Heads are prepared for winter emergencies. Before cold weather hits, Heads should ensure they have sufficient resources in the school to cope, such as sufficient boiler supplies, rock salt, shovels and torches. They should also be prepared to cope with staff shortages due to staff not being able to reach the school.

Schools need a certain ratio of staff present to adequately supervise their pupils and must balance risk against continuity of education and the needs of working parents. All schools should have policies in place, agreed with local authorities where appropriate, relating to the closure of the school in particularly bad weather. This should include local methods for communicating school closure messages to parents and communities. Local radio, websites and phone messages are key methods in ensuring that parents are informed.

Government guidance, available from the Department for Education website, states that Heads should use common sense in assessing risks and keep their schools open whenever it is “safe to do so”. This involves taking into account factors such as whether people can get to and from school safely, whether there are sufficient staff to supervise pupils, and whether the school site is safe. The advice adds that Heads should not worry about the impact of closure on their attendance statistics since the regulations were amended in September 2010 so that, when a pupil cannot get in because of severe weather, the school can use a special attendance code. The guidance reiterates that it is Heads with their knowledge of local circumstances who should decide whether to shut a school, in consultation with the local authority.

Dealing with snow and ice

Paths, car parks, access roads, slopes and steps can all become icy and slippery in winter and poor lighting can add to risks. Ice and snow should therefore be removed wherever possible with particular attention paid to exits and entrances, especially emergency exits. In a large school after heavy snowfall it may be quite impractical to remove all snow and ice and so the strategy should be to ensure essential walkways and traffic routes are kept open while access is prevented to any dangerous areas, such as slippery parts of playgrounds. Routes used by pupils with special mobility needs should be given special attention in order to ensure disabled access.

All schools should have in place policies and procedures for ice and snow management while pedestrian and traffic routes should be adjusted where necessary to cope with changing conditions. Rock salt or proprietary de-icing compounds should be used to remove ice from steps, walkways and pavements. Rock salt is best used if scattered on surfaces during the evening prior to a fall of snow or freezing conditions. It should be remembered that the removal of ice and snow, and the spreading of rock-salt, is not without risks itself and should only be conducted by staff who are fit for the task and properly equipped. There are numerous examples of musculo-skeletal injuries and falls affecting those clearing snow.

Slippery internal floors

Inside the school the main danger is of slippery floors in entrance ways and corridors due to the ingress of water from stormy weather or brought in on the shoes of pupils and visitors. Developing appropriate policies for cleaning, maintenance and water spillage removal, and choosing suitable floor surfaces, are key areas for Heads and facilities managers to control these risks. Non-slip mats should also be placed at doorways during the winter to prevent mud and slush being tramped into buildings.

Flooded areas should be cordoned off and safe detour routes marked out while facilities managers make a note of the floods position so that effective maintenance work can be scheduled when the weather allows.

Keeping premises warm

Heads should ensure that boilers and heating systems are working effectively and are properly maintained and serviced by appropriately trained and qualified engineers. They should keep handy a current list of emergency contact phone numbers for electricity, gas and water suppliers and ensure that all fire precautions are in place as per the school’s fire prevention policy. The use of extra heaters should be discouraged by ensuring premises are kept warm and comfortable through standard heating.

Facilities managers should ensure that the risk of burst pipes is reduced by properly lagging and insulating pipes and setting the heating to come on automatically if the temperature falls too low.

Cars and travel

Winter driving conditions threaten both staff getting to and from work and transport provided by the school, eg minibuses. Any vehicle owned by the school should be prepared for winter by being professionally inspected. Lights, tyres, batteries and anti-freeze should be given close attention.

In bad weather unnecessary journeys should be avoided and advice from local police relating to driving conditions heeded. If journeys have to be made then drivers should drive slowly and let someone know the route taken and an arrival time.