Working in winter is just a part of the job for plumbers, but the cold temperatures, wet weather and shorter daylight hours bring a range of OHS risks. We spoke with Cameron Ellis and Steve Thornley, both former plumbers who now work as OHS advisors with WorkSafe Victoria, to identify the most common winter hazards and get some tips on how to minimise these seasonal risks.

1. Mud

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. “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 which are heavier than air, like carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. 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, if you enter a trench which is 1.5m or greater in depth, 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, 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, “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 high. It’s also important to wear appropriate footwear that has proper grip.”

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, take care to scrape it off first.”

5. Handling wet materials

“When carrying and lifting wet slippery materials, particularly sharp ones, use gloves to improve grip or consider using a mechanical aid to assist. 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 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. “Tools should never be left out. Store them in a dry area. Inspect everything before you plug it in.”

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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 o 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 of course, more work with heating systems,” Steve says.

“You 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 of this too.”

10. Fit for work

“If you are unwell, there may be higher risks of injury or accident. If you are not t 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.

Master Plumbers can assist Members with all their workplace health and safety needs.  To find out more please contact Rod Tresidder on 03 9321 0745 or email [email protected]

Amanda Ogilvie is the Senior Content Coordinator for the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s “Biz Better Together” productivity initiative: When employers and employees work together, business is better.
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