Five strategies to keep construction sites safe in winter

Why several layers of planning can help safety leaders stay ahead of old man winter

Five strategies to keep construction sites safe in winter

Winter weather brings many risks and construction sites are places where hazards are everywhere. Adding snow, slush, ice, sleet, hail, and all of the other elements winter can bring, increases the potential for workplace accidents.

Health and safety professionals working within the construction industry will want to have a plan to mitigate the risks associated with working in winter weather. The difference between having an effective strategy and lacking on can be life and death.

Recently an inquest investigated the death of Olivier Bruneau, a worker in Ottawa who was killed by an ice fall. While the death was ruled an accident, Bruneau’s family and his fellow co-workers believe his death could have been prevented.

Planning and prevention are key themes that make up five strategies to keep construction sites safe during the winter. 


Preparing for winter means knowing exactly what types of hazards will be encountered and then planning control methods, according to Jeff Laing, occupational health and safety lead for ETRO Construction.  He says it’s important to develop a standardized plan based on the hazards typically encountered, “really analyzing the impacts of the weather, and really focusing on how that impacts the day in day out dynamic of a construction site is super important.”

Laing says this means considering possible types of weather as well as the tasks that need to be performed, like commuting, de-icing, snow removal, ice removal and then also how that work is carried out, “how that impacts with muscular and skeletal injuries due to ergonomics and due to overexertion.”

He says it’s also good to have an inventory of necessary materials and the costs associated with them, “whether it's like heating devices and frost fighters, or salt and sand and extra labor on top of that.”

Annual plan

Once you know what kind of precautions need to be taken, part of being prepared is developing an annual plan to cope with the weather.  Laing says there are several purposes to this, “pre-plan and prep site teams so that they know the expectations moving into those winter months.”

Setting expectations and clearly communicating them to the entire team year-after-year means the requirements to maintain site safety will always be clear and the proper preparations can be made. “They can order extra material, extra manpower, and really analyze the impacts of the schedule and budget,” says Laing, who adds this will also free up the health and safety leader on the team to focus on site specific hazards. 

Day-to-Day Plan

Once a company has developed its annual plan, it can then focus on day-to-day operations and plan for the constantly changing hazards weather can present.  Laing says coming up with specific tasks for individuals creates a feeling of responsibility among workers, “whether it's tasking somebody to focus specifically on sidewalks, or those ice balls, or any sort of ice buildup or snow buildup, and really task, analyze and create a task specific schedule for people.”

Laing adds a common mistake is overgeneralizing, “if you overgeneralize, nobody takes ownership to it.”  Laing suggests creating specific safety tasks for individual workers and then having a system with their supervisor to evaluate the work, “to ensure that the work is being done accurately or effectively is extremely important.”

Mitigating ice risks

Homing in on the very specific risks ice presents is a strong strategy to get an entire team safely through the winter work season.  One of the ways to really understand what kind of ice hazards will be presented on any given day is by keeping a close eye on the forecast.

“I think that would be a big one to focus on,” says Laing, who suggests temperature fluctuations will want to be emphasized because it will indicate if the ice is building, melting, or re-freezing.  Additionally, workers will want to pay attention to areas where ice typically builds up, like the sides of structures, and add these locations to general routine site inspections. 

Then Laing says the focus should be on safe and effective removal and mitigation of those ice hazards. “It's basically the implementation of communicating the potential hazard to the right individuals, and those right individuals then taking on that ownership to inspect it on an effective frequency and then maintain it throughout the course of the construction.”

Proactive vs reactive

Mindset is everything according to Laing and getting out ahead of the potential hazards during the planning process can make all the difference.  “A lot of construction companies are very reactive to temperature fluctuations or weather changes,” explains Laing, who says it’s easy to get caught off guard.

“Then you're dealing with a situation where you may or may not have ice buildup or snow buildup that's creating hazards on your site or hazards to the public. And then you go to stores to buy your ice melts or your salts or your shovels and everything is sold out.”

It’s a mindset shift with an emphasis on planning all year round, because the hazards at the beginning of winter are different than those in the middle of winter and change again towards the end of the season and the beginning of spring.