You can tell it’s Winter. It’s not just the fact that the shops have been full of Christmas stuff for months (and are still now in January full of “buy early for next year” offers) or that my postman has finally stopped wearing shorts every day. It’s the appearance of the “Do we really have to grit?” posts on the various safety forums that gives it away.
When it comes to making a decision about whether or not to deal with slippery paths and car parks it seems that people’s common sense flies out the window and almost everyone has “heard the story” (presumably from the man down the pub who seems to have replaced the Clapham Omnibus man) that if they do nothing then they won’t get the blame when someone falls over on their uncleared, ungritted car park or pathway.
Suggest that maybe we should leave all our machines unguarded just to make sure that we don’t get it wrong when trying to guard one and people will look at you as if you’ve taken leave of your senses, so why does this gritting issue always seem to come up every year?
Well apparently according to the man in the pub, it’s because the weather is outside of our control and so it’s an “Act of God”. It seems to be a standard insurance company maxim that “If (an incident) might have been avoided by human prudence and foresight, it cannot be considered an act of God”. Now clearly we can’t easily avoid frost and snow, but we certainly can act to mitigate their effects and I would suggest that in most cases, it’s likely to be reasonably practicable to do so.
A site I used to know reasonably well had the night gang on standby to grit the carpark and pathways on frosty nights. They would make the decision at around 5 am, based on the simple use of the Mark 1 human eyeball and if the surfaces were icy they’d get out with shovels, brooms and a big bucket of salt and grit. By the time the first production shift of the morning came in, paths and carpark were clear and safe. Not very difficult and something I reckon most premises could arrange to have done within the bounds of reasonable practicability.
Still every year the question comes up as to whether it’s better to simply leave things alone. After all the man in the pub says that if you do nothing you can’t be sued whereas if you do make an effort you are taking responsibility and therefore can be sued. Clearly this is arrant nonsense. Either it is your premises and you do have responsibility to keep it safe as far as reasonably practicable or it isn’t and you don’t. So where does this odd idea that it’s better to do nothing actually come from?
As I found out last year when clearing the path outside my house, it’s probably because doing half a job can make the situation worse than doing no job at all. Outside my house the pavement had about 4 inches of snow and under that a layer of ice. While the snow was still there it gave a small amount of grip and also made it obvious that the pavement was likely to be slippery. Clear away the snow and you were left with a layer of black ice, virtually invisible and with no grip at all. However the answer wasn’t “do nothing”. The answer was “do a proper job”. In this case, a small sprinkling of grit and salt was all that was required. Reasonably practicable? Cerrtainly. Even I managed to get out and do it.
In the harsh winter of 2010-11 the “do nothing” brigade prompted both HSE and IOSH to get involved in putting out guidance; in the latter case this became known as “Gritgate” after several newspapers ran a story saying that IOSH had told employers not to grit. Clearly the Telegraph and the Mail listen to the man in the pub not the man in the know!
So what’s the message from all this then? The same as it always is with Health & Safety
- A little knowledge is a dangerous thing
- The man in the pub isn’t the best person to listen to
- Risk assessment and reasonably practicable measures are the best approach
- You can’t abdicate your H&S responsibility and sit on your hands and do nothing
- If in doubt, get professional help and guidance –HSE and IOSH both have clear information in this case as linked above.
And go out and get a bucket of grit and salt and a nice big snow shovel now before it snows in February and all the shops run out. I even got some of those grippy things with metal spikes that you put on the bottom of your shoes though I wouldn’t mind too much not getting to try them out this year after the fun and games last Winter!