Take no chances with winter preparation
Winter preparation matters. Whether it’s proactive maintenance of drains or grounds or readying your plan for snow and ice clearance, Brendan Aherne, Winter Services Director at OUTCO explains that now is the time to prepare for winter.
Estates management is ultimately all about risk. Wear and tear on assets risks reducing their value. Leaving small problems unresolved risks greater costs down the line that may have a material impact on an organisation’s bottom line. Beyond the risks to the fabric of buildings or car parks, there is of course the human dimension: Hazardous conditions such as slippery surfaces or broken paving onsite risk injury to site users, which in these litigious times carries the heavy risk of legal action, liability claims and even imprisonment for breaches of the Health & Safety at Work Act, which fall under criminal rather than civil law.
Perhaps more than any other time in the year, winter is when these multiple overlapping risk factors coincide: On the one hand, extreme weather conditions such as storms, flooding, snowy or icy conditions present direct hazards, while on the other, limited daylight hours or access to sites caused by weather conditions conspire to make it more challenging to resolve issues. As a result, it’s vital to take a comprehensive and early approach to assess and plan for the winter months that encompasses areas such as grounds maintenance, drainage, and – naturally – snow and ice clearance.
Grounds maintenance priorities
Many organisations significantly reduce grounds maintenance with the onset of winter, for example by reducing the number of site visits after the main growing season ends. However, even when lawns aren’t in need of regular cutting this can be a false economy: some of the most beneficial care is carried out in the coldest months to help lawns grow healthily and free of moss during the summer, and this is true for grounds maintenance as a whole: In any given season, the work you’ve done in the preceding period is often the key to success.
A key activity in the approach to winter is leaf clearing, which is generally required between September and December. Beyond the aesthetic considerations, wet leaves on pavements can present a slipping hazard that can present just as much legal risk to site owners as the snows and ice of winter. Leaf collection is also an important way to prevent more costly works further down the line. For example, leaves and debris that build up can destroy lawns which will require grounds teams to undertake more costly work later to bring these areas back up to standard. Similarly, decaying leaves on lawns or hard standings can also form a substrate that allows weeds to germinate. This then requires more weed control as well as unnecessary and costly chemical treatments during the growing season.
Autumn provides a great time to schedule landscaping works such as planting and arboriculture activity. August through to November is also an important period to focus on landscaping activities like hedge trimming. This is not just to keep things tidy but also to ensure safe access around paths and to preserve sight lines for vehicle traffic in car parks and for security cameras. Similarly, another important area to consider is the safety of trees onsite and it’s important to ensure that any wooded areas near buildings or paths have been recently inspected for dead wood that may need removing to ensure safety during winter storms. As with any area of health and safety, acting proactively regarding tree safety and effectively documenting this action is the key to mitigating legal hazards should the worse happen.
Getting ready for the winter rains
One of the defining features of the British climate is rainfall, which is why it’s vital to ensure that drainage systems are working as they should ahead of winter. Again, this is an area where planned maintenance is important to ensure drains can handle the expected conditions. The Met Office has warned that the UK will see an increase in the number of “high impact heavy rainfall” days, with intense and prolonged rainfall seeing a rise in flooding. While drainage systems are not designed for flash flooding, proactive measures such as CCTV drainage surveys and high-pressure water jetting will ensure that they can operate at their optimal level.
The needs of sites will vary, but inspections and cleaning of drains should be undertaken at least once a year. A recommendation is that this is done around September time to remove leaves and debris that have been washed into drains and to ensure the drainage system can run at full capacity over winter. Ideally, that process should be repeated in March to cope with build up over winter. As well as camera surveys of drains, inspections should also look for obvious issues on site like ponding in car parks, – an obvious sign that water can’t get away, depressions that could indicate a collapsed drain, or to identify and clear vegetation in drainage gullies that would impact their effectiveness.
Obviously, prevention is cheaper than the cure and this is certainly the case with drainage, where expensive excavation and drain repairs can be prevented with effective planned maintenance. Hence, regular planned drain cleansing and site surveys can ensure any potential issues can be identified and dealt with before becoming an expensive problem. For example, techniques and methods such as no dig and pipe relining repairs, can ensure that drainage issues can be rectified with minimal disruption and without the need for expensive excavations. In other words, scheduling inspections to help with winter readiness can also help manage costs over the long term. It’s also worth keeping in mind that organisations have a duty of care to maintain drainage and failures to do so – for example in the case of spills on site – could result in fines from the water authority.
Plan properly for snow and ice clearance
Clearly, many of winter’s greatest risks come in the form of snow and ice. Over one of the harshest winters of recent years, 2017/18, Hospital Episode Statistics for England recorded over 7,200 people requiring hospital treatment after slipping on snow or ice. These are figures that organisations can’t afford to ignore: Litigation follows hot on the heels of cold weather accidents and ‘slipping on ice’ accidents have the potential for the highest value claims and compensation.
Planning for winter should be well under way months in advance. Yet worryingly, many organisations approach winter in a poor state of readiness: Every year, our winter maintenance team receives multiple desperate calls from businesses finding their arrangements for snow and ice clearing falling short – whether its emergency cover needed when a contractor fails to show, or even requests for quotes arriving as the snow starts falling. This ad hoc approach that treats cold conditions as an afterthought can even be seen in otherwise highly professional FM operations. A striking example we encountered was a state-of-the-art fulfilment centre brought to a halt due to compacted snow that had turned the loading areas into ice rinks. In that case, leaving the task of clearing ice to poorly trained staff caused a just-in-time supply chain to grind to a halt.
Hence, taking a proactive and fully managed approach to winter maintenance is key to business continuity, preventing accidents and mitigating potential liability claims. Whether outsourcing to expert contractors or carrying out work in house, your adverse weather policy should clearly communicate how your organisation will manage/take action in extreme weather situations.
Key aspects of any effective winter plan include:
- Use of a recognised health and safety management system (e.g OHSAS18001) to ensure the plan is fit for purpose.
- Clearly defined and communicated responsibilities for teams on the ground and within management.
- A process for documenting proactive actions, incidents and investigations undertaken with records kept for three years minimum.
- Ensuring the plan is based on detailed surveys to identify hazard areas and that action is undertaken according to real time accurate weather data and agreed action triggers for service.
- Adequate resourcing with either professional contractors or a dedicated trained in-house team, sufficient and well-maintained equipment.
- Clearly defined KPIs to measure performance against and a process to review the plan and any KPIs on a regular basis (at least bi-annually)
Underpinning all of this is a proactive, professional mindset that looks to anticipate and pre-empt seasonal risks. Estates management is about managing risk but it’s also about priorities and understanding where best to invest the energies of your organisation and when to bring in the right skills to take on the breadth of challenges.
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