Last reviewed 17 November 2021

Laura King outlines six ways to prepare your business against inclement weather this winter.

This autumn there have already been incidents of severe flooding, hurricanes and even snow. Although, it is tempting to hope that such extreme weather is just a one-off, our changing climate means that we are likely to experience more severe weather, not less.

Indeed, in its latest assessment, Climate Change Committee has warned that “future UK winter weather may be dominated more often by weather patterns associated with wetter, wilder and windier winter weather”. And although bitingly cold winters are not a key part of the predictions, variability is, meaning that businesses would be wise to properly prepare for winter regardless of how cold, or snowy, it might be. The cold, icy conditions experienced during the winter of 2018/19 — which led to temperatures plummeting to -14°C in the Cairngorms in Scotland and bringing some cities to a halt — were estimated to have cost the UK economy £1 million for every day of disruption.

Preparing for winter

To prepare for inclement weather, a winter plan should be put together with an associated risk assessment. This should be carried out well in advance, and revisited and revised throughout the cold period.

The winter plan will be part of the suite of contingency plans already in place that outline what could happen in worst-case scenarios, and how these risks are mitigated and managed. For example, how would the business fare if power supplies went down?

To make sure everyone understands what is expected of them, and to ensure the plan is as streamlined as possible, it should be completed alongside other areas of the business — for example HR, IT and the communications team.

Due to the impact of Covid-19 and the resulting lockdown, last year’s winter plan was likely to have been radically different to those preceding it. Some aspects may be still relevant; others may need adapting based on the current and anticipated measures for Winter 2021/22. As part of any planning process, include a review of how the plan fared last year, as well as the year before, so that new approaches can be adopted where processes were less than ideal.

Some areas that could be addressed as part of winter planning are outlined below.

Communication and remote working

Staff need to know what is expected of them when bad weather strikes, as well as what they can expect from the organisation. In some respects, the widespread introduction of remote working through Covid-19 may have improved the organisation’s ability to adapt to short-term consequences of being unable to attend work. Many members of staff will now be set up to work from home, and if hybrid working has been introduced into the organisation, this may help reduce disruption.

However, staff will still need clear policies on what is appropriate, so work with HR to integrate flexible working policies into the winter plan so that employees understand what to do in the event of bad weather or other winter-related disruptions, such as emergency childcare needs.

Following Covid-19 lockdowns, facilities staff will also be very familiar with what needs to happen if staff should not come into work. However, it is worth ensuring that any lockdown-related contingency planning is fed into winter plans so that any building closures are addressed in a consistent manner.

Communicating with staff is key in all these instances, so make sure that the communication plan is clear, approved, and aligned with communication from other departments. Also ensure that managers are on board and understand what is required.

Preventive maintenance

Bad weather and high winds can expose any building flaws, especially in areas such as roofs or windows. Before winter comes, carry out a condition survey to identify any potential problems, and prioritise them for repair.

Similarly, regularly inspect heating systems and any other plant required for emergencies, such as back-up generators. Proactive maintenance and regular inspections will help reduce the chance of failure when these bits of kit are most needed. Consider setting additional “winter” KPIs to help track and monitor those tasks that need to be given higher priority during this time.

Proper ventilation will also be crucial this winter to help reduce the spread of Covid-19. Options such as opening windows may become less appealing as it turns colder, and so mechanical ventilation will be relied upon. Again, preventive maintenance will help ensure that all systems are functioning well.

Slips and trips

Snow and ice are two obvious winter problems that can be a hindrance to any business. Make sure that supplies of grit are fully stocked, and that weather warnings are regularly checked so that the grit is used when needed. Staff employed to spread grit need proper personal protective equipment (PPE) as well as a map of where to grit, and priority areas. Keep records of where and when gritting takes place and fully train staff. Also ensure that any gritting is carried out in a Covid secure manner, for example, by providing individual PPE.

Do not forget inside the building too — staff bringing snow and ice in on their shoes can create slippery surfaces, so consider adding extra mats at the front doors to help keep the building clean and to absorb any extra wetness.

Also remember that slips and trips are not just isolated to times when snow falls. Darker mornings and evenings can cause more accidents, as can autumnal leaf fall. As part of maintenance checks, ensure external lighting is adequate and that entrances and pathways are kept clear of leaf litter and debris.

Staff working outdoors

As part of the maintenance team there might be people who are regularly working outdoors. Although minimum working temperatures do not apply for these workers, there is, however, still a duty of care to ensure that people are not working in unsafe conditions. This could mean that managers need to look at rotas to avoid staff working outside in the cold for long periods of time, as well as making sure there are adequate facilities for people to warm up and take a break. The availability of facilities is especially critical if breaks need to be staggered due to Covid-19, or if the usual facilities have changed. Additional PPE to account for the weather can also be appropriate — for example, having good waterproofs.

Equip fleet vehicles

Make sure fleet vehicles (including grey fleet vehicles) are prepared for wintery conditions. This means making a considered decision as to whether winter tyres are necessary, as well as asking staff to undertake some basic checks on weather and road conditions before deciding to drive. It is also a good idea to put together a car “winter pack”, including a blanket, in-car phone charger and snow shovel. Staff can supplement this with personal items that could include warm clothing and food. Include clear instructions on how to use any additional equipment provided in a Covid-19 secure manner.

Managing sickness

Along with bad weather comes the dreaded winter flu. This year, seasonal flu may also coincide with another wave of Covid-19 infections meaning that managing sickness will be more important than ever. Facilities and Health and Safety managers can play an important, if not visible, role in reducing the impact of staff illness spreading. For example, by stocking up on soap and alcohol gels and working to promote “hands, face, space” messaging and other good behaviours to reduce the spread infections.

Furthermore, don’t forget that winter doesn’t always mean catching a cold. For some, it can also bring about the onset of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) as well as a propensity for less exercise and a change in diet. The impact that Covid-19 has had on mental health is well documented, and the onset of winter can make any pre-existing condition worse. Keep this in mind; perhaps renew or re-launch any wellness campaigns or promote any mental health support that is offered by the business.

Summary

In short, plan ahead. Make sure that a winter plan is in place, any maintenance is carried out and that the business is ready should the worst happen. If bad weather does strike, then remember to review how it went afterwards and implement any changes that might be necessary.