Gritting and Snow Clearing, an Essential Service?

When the coronavirus lockdown was first announced, there was widespread confusion about what who should or should not continue going to work. Did gritting and winter maintenance fall within the “essential services” category? With frosty nights forecast, my team at Accugrit needed answers fast.

After a generally mild and wet winter, the night before the lockdown was announced saw temperatures drop as low as -6 °C in Yorkshire – and further cold nights were forecast. I had to make a quick decision about whether my teams should continue their work or stay at home.

While the decision was simple for some industries, it was less clear-cut for many others. Construction workers were advised to continue working and it seemed like business as usual on many building sites the Tuesday morning after the prime minister’s speech. But while it was initially thought that construction sites could remain open safely, the photos of construction workers being unable to avoid working in close proximity to each other led to mass closures in the days that followed.

But what about winter maintenance? Should that continue – or stop?


Essential for health and safety


To make the right call in the unprecedented circumstances, I communicated with my local MP and other leaders within the winter maintenance and facilities management industries, as well as our clients. In the end, it was a client who made the need to continue clear. Their staff were working from home but, being based near a hospital, they were offering their car park as an overspill. They asked us to please continue gritting to keep their car park safe for hospital users. I was then in no doubt that we should continue offering our service to any of our clients who needed it.

Across the sector, industry leaders quickly came to the same conclusion. For those of us providing our service to frontline or other vital services, including hospitals, care homes, utility sites or key supply chain sites, we were indeed essential for ensuring sites remained safe and open during inclement winter weather. If the pandemic had occurred in the middle of severe winter with heavy snow or very icy conditions, not delivering gritting and snow clearing could have severe repercussions.

Our services are crucial elements of our clients’ business continuity plans. At the same time, they help to protect organisations from the potential financial cost of a claim relating to a slip, trip or fall during icy or snowy weather. A claim from a staff member of visitor would usually far outweigh the cost of outsourcing winter maintenance to us.


Safe working for our teams


To keep staff safe we had to quickly revise our operational plans. While no one ever expected to need to use it, our business continuity plan set out the actions to take in the event of a global pandemic. Accugrit’s policy of not overloading routes of work and ensuring cover support is always readily available from nearby teams meant that all routes could be covered, even with many team members self-isolating and unable to work. This policy was far from industry-standard but I believe many other service providers may wish to work with similar contingencies in the future.

Daily safety talks were conducted to relay the need for new safer working practices, including wiping down equipment, washing hands as often as possible and using hand sanitiser before and after visiting sites. Fortunately, the nature of the work made it fairly simple to implement social distancing. Many smaller car parks could be serviced by one team member, working alone, while team members began travelling to larger sites in separate vehicles and then keeping 2 metres apart onsite.


Planning ahead


While we are hopeful that the COVID-19 crisis will end as soon as possible, it is imperative that everybody’s business continuity plans set out their response to the event of a second wave of the virus this year or next.

Whatever industry our clients work in, we can help to ensure their winter maintenance is covered as the flexibility in our contracts means they can cancel planned visits if they no longer need us to attend – but can be certain we will whenever they need us to.

Picture: Snow gritting

Article written by Dean Harvey