CIRAS members are well practised at preparing for the health, safety and wellbeing issues that winter brings every year, but this is the first time anyone has had to do it during a global pandemic. For the most part, preparations will be much the same, but are there any new considerations? We asked the Track Safety Alliance Leadership Group at their August meeting.

In 2018, around 90 CIRAS members came together to share good practice on seasonal safety. Key issues discussed included winter driving, lone working, the need for good planning to ensure resilience, preparing vehicles for seasonal conditions, wellbeing and PPE. These remain the keystones to managing risks during the winter. However, the Track Safety Alliance Leaders’ Group identified some additional areas for consideration.

Driving and fatigue

As days shorten, workers are more likely to be driving in the dark, which can be more fatiguing, especially if it’s at the end of a long shift. In addition, many companies have had to increase the number of vehicles they are using to allow for social distancing. This could lead to staff driving hire vehicles that they are unfamiliar with, or workers who may not normally drive getting behind the wheel. This risk can be even greater when staff still elect to drive home after shifts (sometimes even where accommodation has been booked). And the increase in vehicles also means more people are driving, which in itself increases risk.

Drivers can mitigate risks by ensuring all vehicle checks are carried out, taking frequent rest breaks and using accommodation where provided. Fleet managers can also check that similar checks are completed on any hire vehicles.

One suggestion was to conduct site briefings using digital tools such as MS Teams or Zoom the day before, so workers can set out for site a little later, reducing the need for early starts in the dark.

Driving alone

The need to socially distance means more people are driving alone as we come into the winter season.  Lone driving has its own risks. Fatigue can be greater without a second driver or the stimulation of company, and if there is an incident the driver could be isolated. CIRAS members have reported addressing this in a number of ways, for example:

  • fitting trackers on work vehicles, with the agreement of the workforce and unions
  • issuing dual SIM phones to increase signal coverage
  • providing mobile wi-fi hotspots in welfare vans which travel to site.

Work-life balance

The virus has meant that more people are based from home, travelling directly to site rather than into a depot or other place of work. Others may be working from home full-time, when in the past they have needed to start early to accommodate a commute. This disruption of past routines, coupled with the onset of shorter days, might increase the chance of wellbeing issues such as seasonal affective disorder. And as more people return to site, regular check-ins with remote staff might seem less important, but they will still matter for those still working from home or working alone.

Site preparedness 

Every winter brings the need to ensure sites can cater for the welfare needs of workers in inclement weather, and the hours of darkness. This will include, for example, checking that access points and walkways are clear, well-lit and treated for slip hazards. Additional attention may be necessary to ensure staff can shelter and keep warm while keeping socially distant. This could include providing adequate shelter for staff signing in with Sentinel cards or ensuring communal areas such as drying rooms and canteens are set out to facilitate social distancing.

Winter illness

Levels of sickness tend to increase in winter, due to common colds and similar viral infections. In the past many might have pushed through, thinking it’s ‘just a cold’. However, with the risk of Covid-19 still present people may elect to stay away from work while symptoms pass, and to self-isolate in accordance with Covid-19 guidance. If this happens, it’s likely to have an adverse effect on staff absence and create staff shortages. On the flipside, social distancing measures and a focus on hand hygiene may actually reduce the spread of normal seasonal illnesses, as staff are not in as close contact with each other as normal.  

Do you have any thoughts on how Covid-19 might affect seasonal preparation? We’ll share them with members if you let us know at editor@ciras.org.uk.