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Winter weather forecasts are unreliable: FMs should plan for everything

20 January 2015

Even if the forecasters get it wrong, and this winter isn't extremely warm and wet or cold and icy, FMs are right to prepare for the worst

There was some relief after the Autumn Statement that government will put £2.3bn towards improving flood defences in the UK. More than 1,400 flood barriers and other defence measures will be upgraded to help defend about 300,000 homes against the devastating floods seen in 2014.

The ‘huge investment’ in flood defence – including work in the Thames and Humber estuaries – is  part of a series of major infrastructure projects being announced by government.

Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the Treasury, said: “We all saw the destruction and heartache caused by flooding last year and that is why this investment is vital to build Britain’s defences for the future. The projects we’re announcing will protect some of the country’s most at risk locations ensuing we will be as prepared as possible for future severe weather.”

He added: “Good quality infrastructure is vital for the economic well-being of this country.

“It boosts productivity and increases competitiveness as well as creating opportunities for people across the UK to set up their own businesses, communicate more easily and feel secure in their homes. That’s why the government has set out a £460 billion pipeline of investment.”

Every long-term weather forecast seems to make Michael Fish’s notorious blunder in 1987 look better. It sometimes appears that every time a forecaster tells us it’s going to be the coldest winter on record, you’d better brace yourself for mild weather and rain. Lots of it. And if they say it’s going to be warm with lots of rain, well… who said meteorology was an exact science.

The problem with this method of forecasting is that while the meteorologists are doing the best with the instruments at their disposal, there are many professions that have a vested interest in whether a winter is going to be freezing or wet, or both. FM, for instance,

As a result of the uncertainty, it’s best FMs always prepare for the worst, and there are plenty of companies offering products and solutions to help them along. Take Fullcircle Total FM, for instance. This national provider of drinks dispense and FM services says it was ‘prepared in advance’ for the ‘big freeze’ of 2009-2010, when salt shortages led to airports and public transport grinding to a halt.

Many businesses were heavily affected, with employees not being able to travel to work and parents having to stay at home to attend to their children. Facilities, in many cases, weren’t safe as the lack of salt meant car parks and pathways couldn’t be gritted. Fullcircle says it was prepared in advance for the weather that year, having a reserve of gritting salt at the ready.

Marc Eckley CEO of Fullcircle says: “Being a businessman myself I know how critical it is to keep your business running at all times, and that’s why Fullcircle is once again thinking ahead.”

Meanwhile, manufacturer of specialist cleaning and maintenance products, Arrow Solutions claims to have given train operating companies (TOCs) some peace of mind as the temperature drops by developing a winter grade screenwash for use in the rail industry. The screenwash maintains the same high level of performance as previous strengths, but ensures effectiveness down to -20C.

The development comes after TOCs highlighted the need for a screenwash that worked in harsher temperatures, and was designed and produced at Arrow Solutions' research and development lab at its base in Moira, UK.

“Few factors affecting rail operations are as unpredictable as the British weather and few have as much potential to cause delays and incur costs,” says James Lomas, Arrow Solution's sales manager. “Regular screenwash only works down to about minus four degrees centigrade. In extreme winters, this kind of fluid is likely to freeze when applied to the windscreen, making it next to useless.

“However, some train operating companies don't realise these limitations before it's too late. That's why we've developed a genuine winter grade screenwash. In its undiluted form it works down to temperatures of minus 20 degrees.”

Whether the worst weather predictions materialise remains to be seen but, says Greg Bordiak, technical officer at the British Compressed Air Society, it serves as a useful reminder for facilities and plant managers to take steps now to protect air compressors from the effects of cold weather.

Bordiak has tips for ensuring a safe and reliable supply of compressed air this winter including avoiding extremes of temperature, protecting your pipework, checking fluids and thinking about system design.

For existing compressed air systems, system upgrades need to be proven to be cost effective and efficient and should include a comprehensive service and maintenance package from a competent and qualified engineer, Bordiak advises. BCAS AIRSAFE registered companies offer a ‘range of quality support packages’, ranging from emergency repair through to full condition monitoring, which can predict potential problems with compressor components before they affect system performance.

For new installations, the issue of low temperature operation should be accommodated at the design stage, taking into account factors such as compressor siting, pipework options and downstream equipment reliability to provide a robust and weather proof system.

In further weather-related FM, County Durham high level maintenance firm, Stone Technical Services (STS), says it’s secured several contracts as organisations prepare their buildings for the winter months. “STS has started work on preventative maintenance projects and roofing works for the NHS as well as Ripon Cathedral and Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire,” says MD Dave Stone.

“Many more businesses and organisations now plan ahead and get their buildings safe for the winter months as it can save money in the long run,” says Stone. “It’s also a legal obligation that buildings and structures are safe and comply with health and safety regulations. Our FM team has already been called out all over the country to fix damaged roofs, unblock gutters and secure signage.”

The health and safety aspect is never far away with respect to winter. Neil Howe, senior legal author with online safety specialists Cedrec, is urging employers to be mindful of their responsibilities to keep workers safe during the long cold, dark days. “No-one can predict exactly what the weather's going to be like over this winter but it’s at least possible for companies to be ready when things take a turn for the worse. After all, employers must remember they have a duty of care concerning the health and safety of their employees.”
The key to success is to adopt a common sense approach, striking a balance between asking employees to make all reasonable efforts to be mindful at work while not encouraging them to take any undue risks with their safety in mind, Howe advises.
“Employers are responsible for making sure the workplace is safe so far as is reasonably practicable and should consider instigating an adverse weather policy ahead of the traditionally colder, bitter and icy months of deep winter. It's important that this policy, which sets out an organisation's position and how it will handle issues surrounding bad weather, is communicated and properly explained to all staff.”
Howe adds: “Cold weather and shorter daylight hours mean there is more potential for accidents to happen. Companies have a responsibility to provide adequate welfare and protection in winter and need to consider lighting, rain water, ice, frost, snow and gritting among other factors. Prepare for what will happen, and what you can do to prevent the risks. It's much easier and safer to put down grit the night before, rather than in the morning when there's a covering of snow and ice.”
He advises that some simple precautions can be taken to prevent accidents such as slips and trips.
“An initial risk assessment will identify potential hazards – areas such as building entrances, car parks, walkways, and areas that are sloping or in the shade or wet - and the effective precautions that can be taken to improve the management of these risks. (If an employee brings a personal injury claim against their employer as a result of a slip or trip on snow or ice at work, the court will consider the circumstances in which the incident occurred and the steps the employer took to avoid the risk of injury).”

Weather data is also an essential FM tool. Precise weather information, especially in the winter months, is one of the most crucial data sources for keeping facilities safe for staff and visitors, according to Nikki Singh-Barmi, MD of winter risk management specialist Gritit.

Speaking at the company’s winter season conference, Singh-Barmi highlighted that many businesses are ‘caught out’ by the increasingly unpredictable weather in the UK, and put themselves at risk by carrying out last minute gritting and snow clearance, and by failing to adopt an advance winter maintenance programme, delivered by an expert service provider.
“A sophisticated level of meteorological data, from a specialist forecasting company, is essential, however if this is in the ‘wrong hands’, without the right knowledge and expertise, an organisation will still be at risk if an incident occurs,” warned Singh-Barmi. “Implementing a reactive service, which may be self-delivered, or procuring a less robust service from an external provider, where the client is presented with the meteorological data, assesses the level of risk, and takes the decision to service or not, is irresponsible.

“Whatever the degree of risk, should personal injury arise as a result of an accident, any decision not to provide a gritting service based on lack of resource or cost-saving, would leave an organisation vulnerable to litigation, and have implications for insurers.”
Appropriately-allocated resources, achieved through an advanced winter maintenance plan and delivered by a reliable external specialist, with weather data from a reputable source to monitor the increasingly unpredictable UK weather, ensure there are no huge holes left in budgets and that risks are significantly reduced, explained Singh-Barmi.

MeteoGroup weather reports are entered into Gritit’s cloud-based solution Nimbus to create a rigorous fully automated management system that precisely meets the client’s gritting and snow clearance requirements, yet which has the flexibility to provide bespoke solutions, for example on unmanned sites where a leak, or burst pipes, could pose an unexpected risk. “Risk management cannot be a one size fits all solution, but it must be scientific and systematic, rather than based on an ad hoc decision,” said Singh-Barmi.
Mark White, regional director of MeteoGroup, added: “Our accurate and detailed weather forecasts aim to empower businesses to master the weather, providing unparalleled accuracy in short-term forecasting and adding an important capability to Gritit’s services.”

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