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Cold comfort

Harsh winter weather often takes organisations by surprise. As Vicky Lopez, Director at De-ice, explains, it’s never too soon to plan for snow and ice

The UK is not like Scandinavia, where the advent of winter snow and ice is generally predictable and therefore easier for businesses and organisations to plan for. In Norway, Sweden and their neighbouring countries, businesses invest heavily in proactive winter planning so that the inevitable seasonal transitions do not impact their operations and ultimately their profits.

On the other hand, the UK has over recent years experienced relatively mild winters with parts of the country only having a little or no snow. Despite this, potential adverse weather conditions still present huge risks for all companies. It is therefore imperative that facilities managers do not use previous mild winters as a reason to cut back on winter planning expenditure.

Reacting to adverse conditions is ultimately too late. Litigation risks increase where icy grounds can result in accidents, slips and falls. The ‘compensation culture’ society we live in, coupled with the increasingly severe winter weather, means we are likely to see more claims arising from people slipping on snow and ice in the winter months. Claims range from a few thousand to tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands of pounds, depending on the severity of the injuries and the impact on the claimant’s work and daily living.

In addition to the litigation risk, blocked access to buildings deters visitors and prevents staff from coming to work. Closures lead to reduced profits and damage to reputation.

Proactive planning is essential and works effectively as a winter insurance policy. However, waiting until the skies become grey and the days become shorter may be too late to carry out a proper winter risk assessment or appoint the right contractor. This may ultimately lead to a more expensive ‘belt and braces’ approach. It is essential therefore to plan for winter weather in good time.

You can implement a winter plan at any time of the year – there are no additional costs and contracting in early gives all parties plenty of time to prepare. We have always followed a ‘plan, do, review’ process, enabling us to be ready to provide our services where and when needed within strict timeframes. A longer-term plan should be refreshed annually and monitored constantly throughout the service period. Ad hoc, last-minute planning is unlikely to meet the customer’s needs and will reflect poorly on the service provider and facilities manager.

The following provides broad guidance on putting in place an efficient and cost-effective winter management plan. Note that timings will vary according to client and location.

You can engage a winter management contractor at any time of the year, but this is a good time to start talking to contractors. It’s also a good idea to attend a facilities expo such as Facilities Show, which takes place next year in June. Having different contractors accessible under one roof enables you to meet them face-to-face, have an informal discussion of your needs, and ultimately select the business that is the best fit for your needs.

Choosing a contractor can be a complicated and lengthy process. At the end of the day you need to make sure you have the right partner in place, because for many organisations this will be a long-term appointment. It’s essential to carry out due diligence, for example by speaking to the contractor’s current clients. As a minimum you should ensure that your prospective partner:

  • Owns its equipment and has trained staff
  • Has relevant credentials such as ISO accreditation and SafeContractor certification
  • Can provide a service guarantee, reports (via an audit trail) and invoices
  • Is properly insured, including for public liability
  • Has access to weather-tracking data
  • Offers a single point of contact for management of your site.

Meet with your chosen contractor at the site to discuss the winter gritting and snow clearance options. This should include mapping out and planning the winter gritting routes, and so on. Before signing contracts, consider ways of reducing costs such as buying salt in the summer when prices are cheaper or signing a longer-term contract rather than a pay-per-visit option.

Those concerned about the unpredictability of costs could opt for a three- or five-year fixed contract. They remain on a fixed budget for the entire period and can plan accordingly. Costs are likely to balance out over the period, covering the possibility of at least one or two harsh winters. An historical average for the site postcode is used to calculate an average fixed cost price for each season.

Where appropriate, include the winter management plan in the site’s health and safety policies and ensure that all relevant staff are fully aware of how their operations will be affected in times of adverse weather. Everyone should be clear about their responsibilities, such as those who will implement gritting.

Winter weather can start as early as October and finish as late as April, depending on where your business is located in the UK. An effective plan should give you fair warning of snow and ice. Your contractor will attend the site and initiate the appropriate part of the plan, which will often happen out of hours to prepare the site effectively for the following day.

Throughout the active period, ensure you maintain regular contact with your contractor, especially towards the winter months. Ask for regular weather updates and pay special attention to road temperatures rather than air temperature. This is where your winter maintenance partner will really prove their worth.

Review your winter management plan with your contractor at least annually along with your other health and safety risk assessments, to ensure you are getting the best service possible.

About Sarah OBeirne


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