As winter draws in and inclement weather conditions become more frequent, business and property owners across the UK typically start thinking about the best way to prepare their business premises and employees for the winter weather ahead.

Like the Great British weather, 2020 has been a year that very few could have predicted. Many businesses have adapted with their normal workplace remaining closed for periods throughout the year, some properties will remain empty with many people having to stay at or work from home. The numbers of vehicles using the road networks and car parks across the UK have also dramatically declined.

As a business or property owner, who is responsible for managing risks on your land, especially during the winter months, how should this impact on your approach this winter?

To help answer that question we met up with Ian Morehouse from the award-winning grounds and facilities maintenance company Ground Control and Griffiths & Armour Risk Management Director, Cath Swindells to ask them for their expertise and guidance on how best to navigate your business through this most unpredictable of winters.

Thanks for taking the time to share some of your invaluable expertise with us. Let’s start by asking you to explain what Ground Control does and how you help your customers, especially during the winter months?

Ground Control is an award-winning commercial grounds maintenance contractor that serves all of the UK. We are the largest private gritting company in the UK and for over 15 years have been keeping business’s trading during the winter season 24/7. At Ground Control, our winter maintenance team delivers gritting and snow clearance services for 9,000 locations across the country, keeping customer sites open, safe, and operational no matter what the British winter brings. We operate under two brands, “Ground Control” and our specialist winter maintenance business “The Gritting Company”

A number of Griffiths & Armour clients have informed us that they have successfully transferred their entire operation to enable all employees to work from home. Their offices and car park are now closed until further notice due to COVID-19. Do they still need to think about safety around their premises, including their car parks, and do they still need to grit it if temperatures drop?

The short answer is yes. If there is any chance of skeleton staff, maintenance, or the general public being on your property while the building is closed to staff, you will still be liable if an incident occurred. By continuing to grit your site you are protecting yourself against a claim should anyone use your car park. This may include a person who does not have permission to be on your land for example a member of the public using it as a shortcut that results in a slip and injury to themselves.

The gritting lorries I see on the roads and motorways are extremely large; what other options are available to businesses who want to ensure their access road and/or car park is gritted correctly, especially if the area in question is relatively small?

Grit Spreaders most of us see on the motorway or main roads are large. However, Grit Spreaders come in all shapes and sizes. At Ground Control our gritters vary from small push along spreaders to 1 tonne spreaders towed by a 4×4, all the way to the large lorry mounted salt spreaders you see on the highways. We have the right type of equipment for every kind of site.

How do I know then to grit the car park around my business premises or office facilities?

Ultimately it’s best to rely on the data and not to make that call yourself. The vast majority of our service is triggered directly as a result of the forecast. Our team and systems review the forecast data and the service is triggered if the conditions are right that Ice, Frost, or Snow will form.

Ground Control utilise the MetOffice OpenSite forecast, which is the most accurate forecast for Road Surface Temperature and Conditions, by postcode prefix, in the UK. It’s a bespoke forecast specifically for road industry. The most common trigger for our customers is the “Red” Trigger which is a warning identifying risk when frost, ice and/or snow are forecast – in other words when road surface temperatures reach zero or below in addition to when there is also “not dry” road conditions. This approach is the best balance between risk and budget for our customers as the trigger is based on the science of ice forming – below freezing and moisture. Different clients have different requirements for operational reasons and we are happy to advise on those and discuss the related benefits and risks.

When the decision is made to grit the site, is there an ideal time to begin the gritting process?

We often see news reports showing gritters spreading salt after ice a freeze or snowfall. Where possible, salt should be applied BEFORE the ice forms as salt works by lowering the freezing point of water. With salt spread in advance of freezing conditions, the salt can prevent the formation of ice and in the event of snow prevent the snow bonding with the road. In the case of both ice and snow acting first is a situation of prevention being better than the cure.

If it looks like ice is forming, our staff pull together and help to put salt down where it’s needed. Why would I therefore need to use a gritting contractor/winter maintenance provider?

As an employer or property owner, you have a duty of care and need to ensure the safety of staff, visitors and customers whilst they are on your site. A professional gritting contractor will physically or remotely survey the site and document your requirements, subscribe to a specialist road temperature forecast, use that information to decide to grit, utilise tracking information to record the gritting activity, and keep records of all of that information.

In the unfortunate event of a slip or trip occurring, your gritting supplier is there to provide the necessary science backed evidence to support you and your business in defending a claim whilst first and foremost aiming to prevent an incident.

Isn’t the salt used in gritting bad for the environment?

At Ground Control, we take our environmental responsibilities extremely seriously. We use both pure white marine salt and brown rock salt, both of which are naturally occurring and have been tested and recognised by the British Standards Institute to BS 3247:2011, the specification for salt for commercial gritting operations. Only 25g / m2 is needed to be applied – so a very even spread should mean that shrubs and wildlife are protected. The industry-wide standard ensures that the salt supplied has less than 4% moisture content and is appropriately sized for spreading operations.

Cath Swindells, Risk Management Director at Griffiths & Armour commented:

“As Ian Morehouse at Ground Control has already pointed out, it is vital that all business and property owners take even greater care when thinking about risk management measures this winter, especially if their premises are currently closed. By being proactive, by planning and by putting the correct procedures in place, your defensibility in the event of a claim will be strengthened”

So Cath, when it comes to claims defensibility, we often hear the terms ‘reasonably practicable’. In relation to snow and ice management and in the eyes of the law, what is considered to be ‘reasonably practicable’?

If an injury is incurred due to snow and/or icy conditions, there is potential for the landowner/business owner/tenant (whomever is deemed responsible) to have actions taken against them under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and other associated legislation. The Act places a legal duty on employers, so far as it is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of employees and others on their site. This includes maintaining a safe place of work with safe access and egress e.g. footpaths, car parks, etc. There is also a requirement to conduct suitable and sufficient risk assessments and as such, workplace conditions and means of access/egress need to be considered.

There is no clear definition as to what ‘reasonable’ is and each occurrence will be considered on its own grounds. If a claim is submitted, a successful defence will often depend on whether the landowner/business owner/tenant can evidence that they have taken reasonable measures to mitigate the risks.
Some actions that could be considered to be reasonable and aid defensibility include:

  •  Employing the services of a winter maintenance company to act on your behalf.
  • Making available grit/salt, equipment and trained personnel to undertake the task.
  •  Being able to demonstrate that weather forecasts were reviewed.
  • Creating and retaining documentary evidence of what actions were taken and when, to mitigate risks.

You mentioned the importance of creating and retaining documentary evidence. What types of supporting documentation could assist a business or property owner in defending a snow or ice related slip claim?

There are several documents that we would encourage our clients to prepare, retain and keep updated to aid defending a snow or ice related slip claim. Whilst not exhaustive, such documents could include:

  • A Snow/Ice Clearing Policy
  • A Snow/Ice Clearing Risk Assessment
  • The contract with the winter maintenance company
  • Written directives to those responsible for clearing snow/ice
  • Records from your ground maintenance company that the work was undertaken
  • Site inspection records
  • Photographic evidence
  • Communications to employees and members of public of the potential hazards
  • Recordings of local weather forecast data

If there is ice or the risk of snow in or around a business premises, what type of preventive measures should you take within the workplace?

It seems like an obvious statement to make but slips occur when a person’s foot cannot properly grip the floor so it’s not surprising that a lot of slips occur when there are wet floors caused by people walking into the building from rain, snow or icy conditions. It is therefore paramount that effective cleaning practices are undertaken, especially when experiencing inclement weather. Floors should be cleaned and dried on a regular basis and always display warning signs where floors may be wet from water being walked in and/or from the subsequent cleaning. Mats at entrances can help to reduce the amount of water brought into a building but also be mindful that these mats do not have curling edges and, where possible, are fixed to the floor to prevent movement. Make sure you encourage employees and visitors to your premises to take responsibility too, this could include instructions to adopt a ‘sensible shoe’ approach. In these conditions suggest wearing footwear that provides a reasonable degree of grip and it goes without saying, avoid high-heels or shoes with soles that are new or shiny.

We have focused on what businesses and property owners can do to improve safety and claims defensibility in respect of snow and icy conditions. Many employees do however need to drive to get to their place of work and many are also required to drive for business purposes. Clearly winter conditions will increase the risk when driving, so how can they change their driving style when driving on snow/icy roads?

The easiest way to answer this is to extract some detail from Griffiths & Armours Winter Driving guidance document, the full version of which can be viewed in the Risk Directory section of RMworks, our online insurance and risk management portal.

Here are a number of adjustments that can be made:
A number of adjustments to driving style should be made when driving in winter weather conditions, with drivers being instructed to:

• Set off in second gear, easing gently off the clutch to avoid wheel spin.
• Maintain smooth pedal control, particularly when setting off.
• Once the vehicle is in motion, drive at a slow speed in as high a gear as possible, as this reduces wheel spin.
• Drive with extreme caution, as stopping distances can be as much as ten times further than in dry conditions.
• Increase the gap between yourself and the vehicle in front.
• Use headlights when visibility is reduced, such as during heavy rain or snow. Use fog lights when visibility is seriously reduced.
• Be aware that black ice may be difficult to see and may only be identifiable when steering becomes lighter. The risk of losing control of the vehicle may be counteracted by easing off the accelerator and avoiding harsh steering.
• Reduce speed smoothly and in plenty of time. Try to reduce speed by changing down the gears and apply brakes gently.
• Attempt to control skidding by easing off the foot pedals and trying to steer in the direction you want to go, for example, if the rear of the vehicle skids to the right, steer immediately to the right to recover. If your vehicle is fitted with anti-lock brakes, follow the advice given in the vehicle handbook.

It is vitally important for drivers to retain concentration whilst driving by avoiding distractions, which will allow better anticipation of potential danger. This will provide increased time to react accordingly.