By Stuart Beaumont, Managing Director, The Safety Group

The snow that swept the country earlier this year brought many businesses to a complete standstill, with losses of up to £600m a day . And, as snow descends on the region again, how prepared are businesses to deal with another round of staff absences? Employees were left reeling at having to take unpaid leave or use up precious holidays as they were confined to their homes by the snow. And it looks like the same thing is about to happen.

Employers should exercise great caution in these circumstances, as controlling an employee’s holidays could actually breach the terms of their contracts.

Very simply, if employees are unable to get into work because of adverse weather conditions there is no legal obligation for employers to pay for this time off therefore, it is unpaid. In many cases, employers have been asking employees if they would prefer to take the time off as a holiday rather than unpaid leave, to which many have said yes, although the question of whether the employer can ‘force’ an employee to take a holiday is debatable.

Legally, employers are allowed to fix holidays i.e. the employer can determine when employees take their holidays, but it’s advisable that employers look at the detail contained within employee’s contracts of employment in relation to holidays, as some contracts are worded as follows: ‘The Company will fix three days holiday per year to account for the Christmas shutdown, however all other holidays can be taken at times suited to the employee in line with business needs’. Where such statements exist in the employee’s terms and conditions, employers need to be careful about breaching contracts of employment, as they could find themselves embroiled in a costly and time consuming tribunal.

Furthermore, news reports have revealed that the number of reported slips and falls almost doubled during the heavy snowfall, leaving many companies running to the rescue of workers and the general public. But with the increased risks of an accident during bad weather, how much consideration are companies giving to health and safety regulations?

“Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, employers have a legal duty of care to employees and all those who may be affected by their business or activities, this includes visitors, contractors and members of the public accessing the premises or sites a company is responsible for.”

Regardless of adverse weather, over 10,000 employees suffered a major injury as a result of a slip or trip at work in 2008/09, according to the HSE, with forty people dying and £800 million lost across all industry sectors due to slips, trips and falls at work.

“Business owners need to identify slip, trip and fall hazards, assess risk and keep areas of work safe and hazard-free at all times, especially during adverse weather. Failure to do so will result at best in a fine and at worse; the possibility of a charge of Corporate Manslaughter should an employee die as a result of negligence.”

There is a lot of conflicting advice on whether companies should grit their premises or sites during extreme snowfall, or whether they should clear snow away etc. “It’s advisable to make sites as safe as possible, which includes laying grit or salt to make surfaces less slippery, clearing snow or spilt materials. Everyone should be looking to prevent accidents from happening as much as possible.”

To reduce the risk of a slip, fall or trip, in snow, ice, frost or spilt materials, employers need to identify high-traffic areas, such as building entrances, car parks, pedestrian walkways, short cuts, sloped areas and places where water may gather.

Here are my top tips:

• If you can, try to keep employees / contractors / the general public off the slippery surface

• Use grit or similar, on areas prone to be slippery, or sand to soak up oils

• Consider covering walkways e.g. by an arbour high enough for people to walk through, or use an insulating material on smaller areas overnight

• Divert employees / contractors / the general public to less slippery walkways and barrier off any potentially dangerous areas

• Gritting is a relatively cheap, quick to apply and easy to spread option for reducing slippery surfaces. Rock salt (plain and treated) is the most commonly used 'grit'. It is the substance used on public roads by the highways authority.

• Salt can stop ice forming and cause existing ice or snow to melt. It is most effective when it is ground down, but this will take far longer on pedestrian areas than on roads. The best times are early in the evening before the frost settles and/or early in the morning before employees arrive. Salt doesn't work instantly; it needs sufficient time to dissolve into the moisture on the floor.

• If you grit when it is raining heavily the salt will be washed away, causing a problem if the rain then turns to snow.

• Compacted snow, which turns to ice, is difficult to treat effectively with grit and ideally needs to be shovelled away.

• Be aware that 'dawn frost' can occur on dry surfaces, when early morning dew forms and freezes on impact with the cold surface. It can be difficult to predict when or where this condition will occur.

• Bags of rock salt can be purchased from most large Builders Merchants.

“The key is proper risk assessment and control measures, which if put in place from the very beginning could prevent unnecessary accidents.”

To find out more about accident prevention email The Safety Group solutions@thesafetygroup.co.uk. Or visit www.thesafetygroup.co.uk for more information.