Construction in the winter: how to prepare and care for your machinery

Colder temperatures are on the way to the UK, posing operational and safety challenges for the construction industry. Winter maintenance plans – and extra vigilance – are needed to make sure equipment and people are protected as cold snaps hit.

Here we outline which machinery and tools need the most attention during the colder months. Some tools require winter servicing, while others often need repairing as they’re susceptible to breaking down in wintry conditions. As well as tips on keeping equipment protected from cold weather, we’ll also examine how to avoid accidents during winter.

How often should you be carrying out machinery and equipment maintenance in the winter?

Potential damage comes from many angles in the winter: low temperatures, ice, gale-force winds, incessant rain. So it’s wise to conduct inspections on your machines and equipment before the worst of the weather hits, making sure anything that needs a service has a service.

Basic daily checks can unearth issues, particularly when carried out by machine operators. It’s especially important to examine equipment after heavy use, when cleaning should also be a priority. Stubborn mud and debris can affect performance and lead to longer term problems.

Which machinery could be impacted most? 

Of course, excavators, grapplers and bulldozers will come into contact with plentiful dirt, resulting in greater cleaning demands. These machines – as well as other heavy plant equipment like telehandlers and cherry pickers – often need the highest levels of winter maintenance and care.

If you can, it’s best to keep heavy plant equipment under shelter, ideally heated. If that’s not possible, maintaining dry conditions – even with a tarpaulin – is a must. You should also periodically start these machines up and move them around at least once a week, to prevent engine problems when you come to use the equipment. 

Checking batteries every now and again is a necessity, moving them indoors if temperatures go below zero. Keeping an eye on battery electrolyte levels is another way to guard against issues.

Anything with wheels – from graders and compactors to loaders – will need its tyres checking before being packed away for the winter. Make sure they match the level detailed in the user manual, and watch out for any signs of wear or cracking. 

The user manual will also come in useful when thinking about oil, which can thicken in the cold and affect machinery joints. When replacing fluids like oil, make certain to leave some space for expansion, particularly for diesel exhaust fluid, which can freeze at low temperatures.

What is a winter maintenance plan?

A winter maintenance simply outlines the processes and systems you need to protect your equipment and make your site safe during the colder months. Planning ahead will mean you avoid last-minute or ad hoc rushes to prevent damage or fix problems.

To figure out what you need to include, you’ll need to carry out site surveys and risk assessments. Key areas will include:

  • Equipment and materials storage
  • Equipment maintenance and checks
  • How to keep roads and walkways clear
  • Any extra training workers need

Your plan should also detail how often checks and safety work should be carried out, helping you to stay proactive and prevent problems before they arise.

If you don’t have a winter maintenance plan, important checks and preparation can fall by the wayside. Not only can this result in damage to equipment, but workers can suffer too. Each year, companies pay out millions in damages as a result of snow or ice, making forward planning – and employer liability insurance – a wise move.

Machinery inspection checklist – how to make sure your machinery is operating smoothly 

Daily checks

Equipment should be examined each day, since low temperatures can cause significant damage. Look out for symptoms of wear or damage on wiring, batteries, hydraulic hoses and tyres, in particular. In fact, checking tyre pressure before using any equipment is always a good idea, since tyres lose air more quickly in colder conditions.

Oil checks

Prior to starting any machinery, it’s important to check the oil is fluid enough (and not frozen) to flow properly. It’s generally best to switch to synthetic oil for engines, transmissions and hydraulics before winter arrives.

Warming up

Hoses, hydraulics and wires become stressed in extremely cold weather, so give machinery time to warm up before using it.

Cleaning up

It’s also vital to make sure your machinery is cleaned thoroughly after each use. Pay close attention to any tracks, the undercarriage and articulation joints. Frozen mud can be especially troublesome to remove.

How to work safely on a construction site in the winter

According to the Health and Safety Executive report: Workplace fatal injuries in Great Britain, 2022, recorded fatalities in construction fell from 39 to 30 last year. This represents a decrease of almost a quarter (23%). But construction still far outstrips agriculture, which was a distant second industry on the list with 22 deaths.

The leading causes of death on construction sites are falls from height, handling electricity and being trapped by something that’s collapsed. Our Accidents in the construction industry: report revealed that 33% of non-fatal accidents involve falls from height. A similar number (31%) come from trips, slips and falls at the same height. While 14% of accident victims are struck by a moving object.

The best way to avoid accidents is to take winter conditions into consideration and slow down, particularly if operating heavy plant equipment. Reduced visibility (from fog, heavy rain or snow) can make accidents much more likely, especially when operating excavators and other vehicles with already reduced visibility. And if a vehicle doesn’t start immediately and a jump start is needed, the best way to avoid potential damage is having an experienced operator carry it out.

When on foot, construction workers should be especially mindful of icy patches, which can easily cause slips, trips or falls. Sufficient lighting to identify hazards can also be a problem during winter. Proper training, safety equipment and PPE can reduce the chances of accidents happening in the first place, at any time of year.