Working in winter is just part of the job for plumbers, but the cold temperatures, wet weather and shorter daylight hours bring a range of occupational health and safety risks. In partnership with Master Plumbers, Biz Better Together spoke with Cameron Ellis and Steve Thornely, both former plumbers who now work as OHS advisors with WorkSafe Victoria, to identify the most common OHS winter hazards and get some tips on minimising these seasonal risks.
Mud is a major hazard in winter. Steve says, “You can scrape down the site to remove loose mud and put down some crushed rock.” Cameron agrees, adding, “Tracking mud around the site, onto ladders, into plant or work areas can also put others at risk of trips and slips.”
Cameron recommends that a suitably qualified person should assess the condition of the ground and the site. “There are times when you have to call it, that the ground is just too wet, soft or slippery,” he says. “Safety has to come first. It’s also going to be expensive to have mobile plant stuck in mud and it exposes other people and plant to increased risk during retrieval efforts.”
2. Excavation dangers
One of the biggest risks is working in trenching. You need to be aware of air and gas movement in and around trenches or pits that may be classified as confined spaces. This is especially so if you have machinery operating nearby to an excavation, like lighting plants or generators producing gases like Carbon monoxide and CO2 for example, gases which are heavier than air. You’ll need to check the atmosphere periodically to ensure it is safe for people to enter and continue working there.
Steve says, “In Victoria, the rule is if you enter a trench which is 1.5m or greater in depth (or there is a risk of engulfment) you have to have some sort of ground support to stop it collapsing, this might include trench shoring, benching or battering the trench. In wet weather the clay will absorb more water, increasing the risk of collapse.”
Cameron adds, “You need to avoid unstable areas or reinforce the ground conditions by adding dirt and other materials and/or repacking it. Saturated soil can increase the risk of ground slippage.”
3. Vehicle accidents
“In bad weather and poor visibility there is an increased risk of onsite accidents involving mobile plant and vehicles,” Cameron says. Steve adds, “Also when travelling to and from sites in winter; you may be driving in the dark, often in rain and poor visibility. Black ice can also be a danger.”
4. Slippery roofs
Steve advises, “Avoid working on a wet metal roof; even with guardrails the possibility of a slip remains too high. It’s also important to wear appropriate footwear that has proper grip.”
In colder areas ice on a roof will make it slippery and it will still be slippery as ice starts to melt. Cameron suggests you start with an assessment. “You may be able to dry the roof off. But if that isn’t practical, wait until that risk has passed. When there is moss or lichen on a roof, scrape it off first.”
5. Handling wet materials
“When carrying and lifting wet slippery materials, particularly sharp materials, use gloves to improve grip or consider using a mechanical aid to assist,” Cameron advises. Steve says, “It’s important to remove excess mud and keep working areas in good order with walkways or crushed rock.”
6. Electric shocks and electrocution
“Your leads shouldn’t come into contact with anything wet,” says Steve. “Leads on the ground are not only a trip hazard, but if they get wet it can cause an electric shock, or worse, electrocution. In Victoria for all construction work, you have to use an RCD.” Cameron suggests using lead hooks and stands and adds that tools should not be left out. “Store them in a dry area. Inspect everything with a quick eyeball of the tool or lead before you plug it in.”
7. Reduced visibility
“There is a heightened risk in winter when the light isn’t as good, or when raining or foggy, as it’s harder for plant operators to see other workers,” Cameron says. “You may need to bring in some artificial lighting. Use exclusion zones, high-vis clothing, and ensure plant operators are aware of who’s working around them and where they are at all times.”
8. Short hours and shortcuts
“In winter with shorter daytime hours to get work done, there are risks associated with rushing to get work completed, and taking shortcuts,” Cameron says. “A lot of this comes down to planning. Look at the weather forecast. Don’t take a roof off or start a trench when there is rain forecast.”
9. Gas appliance safety
“In winter you tend to do more gas appliance servicing, maintenance and installations, and you do more work with heating systems,” Steve says. “You also need to make sure customers are aware of the risks of carbon monoxide poisoning that can be associated with gas appliances. Gas appliances need to be serviced regularly, and we encourage plumbers to remind customers.”
10. Fit for work
“If you are unwell there may be higher risks of injury or accident. If you are not fit for work it’s better to stay home,” Cameron says. “Being wet and cold can make you clumsy if you aren’t properly warmed up for manual tasks and can also impact your concentration.”
Cameron and Steve agree that most of these risks can be managed with a few simple strategies. Planning, having the right tools and equipment and taking the time to assess before diving into work are all key to managing safety in winter.
This article was produced in partnership with Master Plumbers and a version first appeared in Australian Plumbing.
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