Don’t get tripped up by grounds maintenance risks

For public sector organisations that include outdoor spaces, the maintenance and upkeep of pathways, car parks and landscapes is not simply a matter of aesthetics. Perhaps the greatest challenge they face lies in managing risk – yet, according to GRITIT, too many organisations are failing to adequately plan to mitigate hazards

In the UK there are over 16 million square metres of property owned by the government. This vast estate comprises almost 14,000 buildings, from schools, hospitals, leisure centres, libraries and museums, to the office spaces housing our 5.5 million public sector workers. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) around five million days are lost each year through workplace injuries, with slips, trips and falls making up more than half of all reported major/specified injuries and almost 29% of over-seven-day injuries. This costs the UK economy billions of pounds; in the public administration category alone, accidents of this type account for 28% of employee injuries.

Of course, when an organisation fails to manage risks it’s not only its own workforce that can suffer; the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 not only states that employers have a duty of care to provide a safe working environment to ensure the welfare of its own employees, but also that of anyone visiting or passing by a site, including suppliers and members of the public.

Failure to achieve this not only risks injury to individuals but can also have a major impact on an organisation’s reputation and finances. While, in the UK, we have yet to reach the extremes of our American cousins when it comes to ambulance-chasing, recent years have seen the compensation culture flourish, fuelled by ‘no win, no fee’ legal services, with accidents from trips and falls having the greatest potential for high value claims and compensation.

Public sector bodies are, increasingly, feeling the mounting cost of such cases; for example, after a slip on playground ice, one West Midlands pupil was awarded £35,000. As well as the risk of action being taken at an institutional level, it’s also vital to remember that there is also the possibility of action being taken against individuals within an organisation whose actions – or inaction – result in health and safety lapses. It’s important to note that breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act fall under criminal, rather than civil, law which means that liable individuals may end up facing far tougher financial sanctions and even end up with a criminal record.

Despite the enormity of the risks and consequences, many organisations still leave far too much to chance in how they manage their outdoor spaces. Consider the fact that more than 50% of slips and trips occur in the autumn and winter months; according to the Hospital Episode Statistics for England, over 7,200 people were treated in hospital after slipping on snow or ice during the harsh winter of 2017/18.

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Yet, in spite of the clear dangers presented by snow and ice, many organisations increase the risks by failing to plan accordingly. Research by the Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management found that almost a quarter of facilities managers said that they don’t have a winter maintenance plan in place to ensure that the right procedures, training and equipment are in place to effectively anticipate and clear snow and ice. Of those organisations that do have a plan of this type, 26% fail to review the plan annually to ensure that it’s fit for purpose.

It’s all about the process and the plan

Risks and liabilities in outdoor spaces can be effectively mitigated, but success is really a matter of having the right plans and processes in place. Indeed, whether it’s a robust winter maintenance plan or a schedule for inspecting car parks for potholes, organisations need to take care to develop systems that can be embedded into their health and safety policies and procedures. In the event of an accident, the existence – or non-existence – of such systems for identifying, reporting and managing risks will be a key focus of any investigations. Conversely, the ability to evidence the steps taken to reasonably mitigate risks can be the key to avoiding the worst legal consequences.

So what does an effective plan look like? Let’s take as an example the key elements which an effective winter maintenance plan for handling snowy and icy conditions should include:

  • The use of a recognised health and safety management system such as OHSAS1800115 to ensure the plan is fit for purpose.

  • Clearly defined and communicated responsibilities – both on the ground and with a senior ‘champion’ to ensure high level management buy-in.

  • A process for documenting the proactive actions, incidents and investigations undertaken, with records maintained and kept for a minimum of three years.

  • Ensuring that the plan is based on detailed surveys to identify hazard areas, and that action is undertaken according to agreed action triggers for service (e.g. accurate, real time weather data).

  • Adequate resourcing – whether via specialist contractors or in-house – with a dedicated, trained team, sufficient and well-maintained personal protective equipment (known as PPE).

  • Clearly defined KPIs to measure performance against and a process to review the overall plan and its KPIs on a regular basis (at least bi-annually).

These elements would constitute best practice for taking on snow and ice, and very similar professional discipline and principles (identifying roles and responsibilities, documenting activity and reviewing against KPIs) can and should be applied to other contexts where risks may arise.

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