In November 2021, two firms were fined nearly £900,000 following health and safety breaches that resulted in the death of a security worker exposed to freezing conditions at a windfarm construction site in East Ayrshire. The tragic case highlighted, in particular, the risk of failing to provide adequate welfare facilities/heat sources for lone staff in remote locations, as well as the risks created by poor mobile phone service that prevent workers raising the alarm or calling for assistance in emergencies.
Let's look at some 'season-specific' risks to be aware of for the direct workforce, as well as contractors.
Know who is at risk, and how
Those in the industry most likely to be affected are:
- Harvester or forwarder drivers at the outer extremities of a particular site;
- Chainsaw operators working on-site but outwith the risks zones of other machinery;
- Timber purchasers visiting a sale;
- Drivers visiting remote locations.
Certain 'high-risk' activities should not ever be undertaken by lone workers, including:
- Pruning and felling trees in proximity to overhead power lines;
- Using chainsaws, power pruners or wood chippers;
- Using motorised winches or mobile overhead cranes to lift objects without the supervision of a banksman;
- The application of pesticides;
- Work requiring the use of safety harnesses as fall prevention;
- Climbing of trees for any purpose, or the use of rope access techniques.
Once lone workers and their work activities have been identified, consider if your lone working policy makes specific provision for winter, with control measures such as access to heated shelter - be that in a vehicle cab or a welfare facility on-site. Thought should also be given to whether the areas where workers will be located are covered by mobile phone signal or if alternative methods such as radios may be required. The ability of workers to contact their appointed supervisor or emergency contacts, should the need arise, is critical.
Supervision of lone workers during winter may also require different/additional steps to ensure your legal duties are discharged. Increasing the frequency with which supervisors check in (by phone, radio or physical visit) may be necessary.
Apply your weather policy
Consideration should be given to your business' winter weather/poor weather policy. The policy should clearly indicate the weather conditions in which work should be stopped and workers (especially lone ones or anyone working in more exposed locations) be directed to return to base/home. These 'cut-off' limits may differ according to the nature or location of the work. Supervisors should also have a means of monitoring weather forecasts in the local area, and be instructed do so regularly. Increasing the regularity of contact/communication with lone workers during poor weather is strongly advised.
The increased risks are not just apparent in the environment/working conditions, the worker themselves may be more vulnerable for reasons including a pre-existing health condition or English not being their first language. It is good practice to ensure such information has been identified and shared, if appropriate, with their supervisor.
Risks can be further mitigated by ensuring that lone workers receive additional training for the role, covering wider topics than might be immediately obvious. For example, lone workers should ideally have first aid training and be provided with basic first aid equipment for their use in the event of an incident. The lone worker selected should have appropriate experience to ensure that they fully understand the risks and precautions involved in their work, as well as the location at which they will be working.
Consult those affected
Finally, there is a legal duty on all employers to consult their workforce on the health and safety arrangements that relate to them. Accordingly, it is important that the arrangements for lone workers are discussed directly with those who will be working alone and any feedback from them on those arrangements taken into consideration. In the event of a unionised workforce, it may be that such consultation takes place via appointed representatives. Such consultations should be recorded in writing and any concerns/feedback received from the workers
In addition to the potential sentencing implications for health and safety breaches mentioned at the outset, lone working is something that the HSE is particularly focused on; we are seeing an increase in prosecutions involving 'lone working breaches'. Lone working is an area that impacts the forestry sector's workforce significantly and one that employers and their HR teams should be focusing on now, if they haven't done so already.
This article first appeared in the February 2022 issue of Forestry and Timber News.