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It’s no easy task keeping facilities in good-working order all year round. And with colder months on the horizon, it’s crucial that FMs ensure buildings are properly maintained in readiness for impending wintry conditions. Berenice Northcott, Managing Director of Access North Structures, explores 5 key areas not to be overlooked when preparing structures for winter.
The UK may have experienced its hottest summer on record this year, but autumn is already looming and sunshine from June through to August certainly doesn’t guarantee a mild winter. From drainage issues and wind damage to flooding and leaks, it’s no secret that adverse weather conditions in the colder months can wreak havoc on buildings that haven’t been properly maintained.
Within any upkeep programme, regular inspections and preventive maintenance are therefore key to avoiding the need for responsive or emergency repairs – and this is especially important as the coldest season approaches. So, what are the key areas that facilities managers should be considering, to ensure buildings are ready for the arrival of winter?
1) Preventive maintenance
Prevention is better than cure in many facets of life, and structural maintenance is certainly one of them. Specific aspects of a winter preparation programme should therefore be conducted in advance – for instance, repointing worn exteriors, removing rust from exposed metalwork, replacing broken tiles and slates, and repainting outside surfaces can all be taken care of prior to the onset of colder weather.
And even for those tasks that can only be carried out once winter has arrived, these can be scheduled far in advance to ensure all the necessary groundwork has been done beforehand. If there’s not one in place already, creating a proactive preventive maintenance programme is extremely helpful for keeping on top of what works need to be conducted, when these should take place and what preparation is required. Having a thorough understanding of the condition of the structure is a vital part of this, so routine inspections and the production of comprehensive reports should also be factored into this schedule.
Whilst it’s important for FMs to deter weather damage as far as possible, having a safety net if any unforeseen difficulties do arise is also essential. Gutter cleaning and leak detection are two of the most frequent call-outs for maintenance teams in winter, so it’s a good idea to consider the eventuality of requiring such urgent repairs, and find a specialist firm that would be able to help if needed.
2) Outstanding repairs
If there are any areas in need of attention that have been highlighted by inspections, but put off until ‘later’ – or problems that have been spotted by chance – rectifying these should be made a priority before winter sets in. Any defects that begin as minor issues – such as a window seal coming away or a hairline crack in the rendering – can quickly be exacerbated by heavy rain and high winds, so it’s important that they aren’t overlooked.
It’s also worth noting that although elements of winter maintenance can be handled earlier in the year, timescales for others are dictated by the seasons themselves. For example, one key issue affecting all types of building over autumn and winter are blocked drains and gutters, largely caused by falling leaves. Of course, it’s not until the trees are completely bare that the risk of blockages can be ruled out, so de-vegetation can only really be conducted from September through to November.
Employing an efficient access solution is essential for completing such jobs in a timely fashion, so FMs shouldn’t be constrained by more traditional methods, such as scaffolding or aerial work platforms. For hard-to-reach areas and assignments requiring wide structural coverage, rope access is a particularly versatile and cost-effective option, as technicians aren’t confined to one spot and the set-up is quick and non-intrusive.
3) Small structural details
It’s easy to overlook seemingly insignificant structural details in favour of the bigger picture, but certain small design elements can have a mighty impact on the overall integrity of a building – especially when problems arise. For instance, a minor design defect in a gutter system can lead to pooling and standing water. This in turn can cause major issues in the form of water ingress and even flooding, so taking note of the early warning signs is critical.
Peripheral components shouldn’t be neglected either – replacing bulbs in outside lighting and cleaning signage and security cameras are just a few minor tasks that should be factored into a maintenance schedule. Bolt inspections and non-destructive testing (NDT) are also important to consider when planning winter upkeep, as they can play an important part in both structural integrity and worker safety.
4) Worker health and safety
Tricky weather conditions can bring a whole host of challenges when it comes to winter maintenance, making the working environment more hazardous than usual. FMs have to contend with access difficulties, operational disruption and tough timescales all year round. But with the possibility of snow, heavy rain, high winds and freezing temperatures, additional care clearly needs to be taken by technicians conducting on-site maintenance.
In advance of the season, any fall protection equipment should be inspected to ensure it is in full working order. And if there are areas that might need to be accessed that aren’t yet fitted with such safety measures, the installation of restraint or arrest systems should certainly be considered. When work is in progress, monitoring the weather is essential, as is wrapping up warm and ensuring that extra care is taken where there is ice or snow.
5) Obstacles and challenges
Experience is the best teacher, so learning from the obstacles encountered and using these lessons to inform plans going forwards will only improve future winter maintenance programmes. In hindsight, it’s likely that there will be certain jobs that would have been better undertaken before winter arrived. Rather than kicking themselves, FMs should use these productively and factor them into their planning for next time.
It’s a good idea to retain documentation of all works carried out, so these can be used as a reference point for subsequent projects. And if any unexpected issues did crop up, remembering to prepare for these in advance can help avoid similar disruption in the future.
Access North Structures is a rope access specialist, with expertise in tackling complex work at height assignments and the maintenance of ETFE and tensile fabric structures.
5 key areas not to be overlooked in a winter structural maintenance programme
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