Don’t get tripped up by grounds maintenance risks

Published:  27 June, 2019

According to Jason Petch MD at Gritit, too many organisations are failing to adequately plan to mitigate hazards in the outdoor environment that can impact employees and the public alike.

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. For the public sector organisations responsible for properties 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 is in managing risk.

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 per cent 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 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 flourishing of a compensation culture 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. Elsewhere, poor maintenance of surfaces in car parks cost councils in England and Wales £7.3m in personal claims – 82% of which were the result of potholes.

As well as the risk of action being taken on an institutional level, it’s also vital to remember that there is also the possibility for action to be taken against individuals within an organisation whose actions – or inaction – result in health and safety lapses. It’s also 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 outdoor spaces. Consider the fact that more than 50 per cent of slips and trips occur in the autumn/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.

Yet in spite of the clear dangers presented by snow and ice, many organisations double down on the risks by failing to plan accordingly. Research by the IWFM* 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 the organisations that do have a plan of this type, 26 per cent fail to review the plan annually to ensure that it’s fit for purpose.

At other points on the calendar, a lack of effective planning and risk assessment in grounds maintenance can expose an organisation to other environmental dangers. For example, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), falling trees or branches kill between 5-6 people a year. While this is a relatively rare occurrence, the HSE notes that ‘the low level of overall risk may not be perceived in this way by the public, particularly following an incident’, and recommends that management of trees on sites has to be demonstrably proportionate to the level of risk in that location. Organisations with wooded areas on site must therefore have in place an appropriate inspection regime that takes into account factors such as the level of access by employees or members of the public or whether foliage is obstructing sightlines to adjacent roads. Any inspection process should also seek to identify risks such as tripping hazards from tree roots.

 

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 of the key elements of an effective winter maintenance plan for handling snowy and icy conditions. This should include:

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

 

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

 

Bringing in specialist help

Professionalising outdoor facilities management is ultimately the key to ensuring that an organisation is able to meet its Duty of Care, manages risk, and meets the expectations of its insurers. However, doing so can involve a degree of upfront investment in processes and skills that, as public sector budgets face ever-greater pressure, is often difficult to meet.  As a result, engaging with specialist contractors can prove a cost-effective way of delivering a high standard of maintenance.

Yet the private sector doesn’t automatically deliver silver bullet solutions: service providers can offer a broad spectrum of capabilities and indeed, professional standards. For example, in areas such as grounds maintenance, many smaller contractors and subcontractors are still offering a very traditional landscaping service that’s rich in horticultural skill but lacking the level of risk management knowledge or policy guidance that’s on hand from more forward-looking businesses.

Additionally, just like in every other walk of life, technology is starting to have a real impact in outdoor facilities management and in winter maintenance by making service provision more efficient, effective and accountable. As part of a new breed of technology-driven service provider, at Gritit we see immense advantages in mobile technology in particular as it allows teams on the ground to able to immediately access customer instructions and site plans to help ensure delivery against KPIs. Mobile devices also let teams record their activity in real time in order to record risks and document action taken. These leaps in technology are changing the nature of what constitutes best practice and while it is possible to implement some of these practices in house, tapping into this level of infrastructure is a compelling reason to engage with third party specialists.

* IWFM winter preparedness survey 2015 and ‘Winter Maintenance Best Practice Guide’ in association with GRITIT. Updated edition September 2017.

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