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Working safely near water

Working Near Water Safety Considerations.

The University of Reading (UoR) has several areas of open water within its Estate, including lakes and in proximity to rivers, to be enjoyed by colleagues, students and members of the Public. Such areas require maintenance by UoR staff. 

There are hazards’ workers face when working in or near open water, or rivers. When work is required near water, it is essential that the worksite is assessed for risk and that hazard identification takes place, at each individual site. A Safe System of Work (SSoW) should be in place and communicated to workers.  All staff required to work near water will require an awareness of risks and appropriate training. The risk assessment should consider who is at risk, consider vulnerable groups such as young workers, expectant mothers, those with known underlying health conditions and those workers for whom English is not their first language. The location of emergency lifesaving equipment such as buoyancy aids should be noted on the SSoW. Consider if buoyancy aids and lifesaving equipment are not available in the immediate area, consider if such equipment should form part of a mobile kit. The risk assessment should be reviewed periodically and following an incident or change to the environment.

Local and changing factors may establish additional hazards requiring a dynamic approach to risk assessment such as the weather, proximity of students or the public, the season, the depth of water, the condition of the water etc. An inspection upon each site visit, prior to commencement of work, should identify such risks.

Remote, Lone Working and Working Outside Normal Hours Lone working is not recommended when working near or in water and should be assessed as part of a risk assessment. If working outside normal working hours, ensure emergency arrangements have been considered. The remoteness of such work, the proximity of emergency or medical assistance and the provision of welfare arrangements should be considered. Communication should be tested to ensure workers can contact a Manager, Supervisor or Emergency Services without delay. Such testing will establish if the mobile or Wi-Fi signal is reliable. Appropriate equipment for communication should be provided such as a mobile phone, walkie talkie or person down device. Workers should ensure all devices are charged fully prior to work.

First Aid and Medical Assistance Provision for first aid should be considered as part of the School or Functions First Aid Needs Assessment (FANA).  Underlying health conditions of workers should be assessed with Managers to consider the potential delay in seeking medical treatment.  It may be necessary to seek advice from Occupational Health.

Working near water may mean that workers are not near a source of medical treatment or there may be a delay in seeking assistance.   Mobile First Aid kits may be required to be carried by workers and should be considered in the (FANA) completed by the School or Function.

Cold Weather/Cold Water Exposure and Cold-Water Shock - Workers who are at risk of cold weather exposure should be provided with adequate warm clothing (including gloves and boots) appropriate to the prevailing conditions and compatible with Personal Protective Equipment PPE. Working in the open, next to water can potentially expose workers to low temperatures, they should be encouraged to take regular breaks, move around and seek warm refuge when required.

Cold water shock refers to the reaction of the body to entering cold water. Cold water shock can have an intense effect, causing the casualty to breathe in water, muscles can become weak, it can affect the heart causing abnormal rhythms, ultimately resulting in death.

Anything below 15°C is defined as cold water, therefore there is a significant risk of it occurring when entering UK waters at any time of year, including the summer. Average UK Sea temperatures are just 12°C. Rivers are colder.

Advice when Working in Heat – see UoR webpage: Heat

Weil’s Disease (Leptospirosis) the risk of Weil's disease is linked to areas where rats and other vermin are or have been present, this can be canals, rivers and lakes as well as water drainage areas. Exposure to this disease is via open wounds, mouth and eyes. Workers should be made aware of this condition, potential symptoms and control measures. General controls to prevent Weil’s disease will include raising awareness of workers to follow good basic hygiene including:

  • Regular handwashing and avoidance of hand to mouth/eye contact.
  • Do not consume food or liquid whilst working, take breaks away from working area, wash hands.
  • Wash cuts and grazes immediately with soap and running water.
  • Cover all cuts, abrasions and other breaks in the skin with waterproof dressings and/or gloves.
  • Wash clothes that have been in water before wearing again.

For HSE guidance see: Leptospirosis / Weil's Disease from rats - HSE Guidance

For NHS Guidance see NHS/Conditions/leptospirosis

Exposure to Sewage. Sewage treatment does not kill or remove all the micro-organisms; exposure to sewage can occur when working near and in water. Floodwater can increase the risk of release of sewage into rivers and this should be assessed as part of the initial risk assessment, with workers being made aware of the risk and control measures.  Appropriate information and/or equipment should be provided where there is a likelihood that workers may be exposed to sewage. Risks include Hepatitis A and E-Coli. Advice should be obtained from Occupational Health as to potential vaccines required.

For further guidance see webpages:

HSE Sewage Guidance indg198

HSE Guidance working with Sewage indg197

Heavy Rainfall and Working in Flood Conditions.  Heavy rainfall can increase floodwater and increase the speed and flow of rivers. Managers should complete risk assessments and SSoW to ensure staff are aware of the risks of entering floodwater. The assessment should establish under what conditions such work is considered safe or prohibited.  Consider sewage contamination, debris, depth, flow and speed of water. As part of a dynamic safety assessment on the day of work, workers should look at flood alerts via the Met website prior to commencement of work and if necessary, seek advice from a Manager or Supervisor.  Equipment required for work in floodwater will include a probe to determine the depth of water, suitable PPE including gloves, wellies or waders.  STOP immediately if it is assessed it is unsafe to continue.

Floodwater can also create strainers.  A strainer is created by a manmade or natural obstruction such as a tree, root system, fencing, or guard rails. The waterflow can increase around a strainer creating a greater force within the water. Manhole covers can also be released via floodwater with the submerged opening obscured.

Vehicles in Floodwater.  Workers may find themselves in situations where they consider driving through flood water. This may be due to flooded riverbanks, lakes and driving through fords. A risk assessment for work near water should include control measures to ensure drivers are aware of the risks, are instructed not to drive into flowing water or water of unknown depth, to be alert for fallen trees, debris and abandoned vehicles. The vehicle will determine suitability of work in flood conditions, however, unless the vehicle has a high suspension it is advisable not to enter water more than 4-5 inches (10-13cm) deep. Cars will float in 12 inches of water (30 cm). At 24 inches or around (60cm) of water, moving water may sweep the vehicle away. Therefore under such circumstances a dynamic risk assessment will be required. If a vehicle becomes stuck in floodwater and workers are trapped inside, call the fire service (999) for assistance; calls will be prioritised where there is a risk to life.

For further guidance on driving in flood conditions see: How to Drive Through a Flood

Government Flood alert: Check for flooding in England

Met Office flood alert: UK weather warnings - Met Office

Skin Problems and Dermatitis can be caused by wet work/exposure to water. Appropriate PPE should be provided to all workers. Those who have a pre-existing, or emerging condition, should be assessed individually and PPE provided, suitable for the task. Occupational Health may be able to give further advice in this regard.

Hazards to consider when working in or near water:

  • Frozen surfaces, thin ice.
  • Drowning-related hazards such as rising floodwaters, fast current and deep water.
  • Slips and trips at the water’s edge with the risk of falling into water.
  • Movement of vehicles and machinery near water’s edge, particularly during maintenance work.
  • Potential unmarked edges and insecure banks.
  • Contact with contaminated water such as polluted water for example sewage, contact with chemical and biological substances.
  • Manual handling
  • Lone Work.
  • Exposure to Legionella Bacteria.
  • Exposure to extreme weather conditions, direct sunlight or cold temperatures. Hypothermia, heat stress and cold stress.
  • Electrical hazards, use of electrical equipment, tools, machinery around water, leading to electric shock.
  • Impact with submerged fixed objects and floating or submerged debris.
  • Sharp objects such as discarded syringes or broken glass within water, water’s edge and paths.
  • Discarded objects on access and pathways.
  • Insect bites, bee stings and mosquitoes.
  • Entanglement – lake and river vegetation or submerged discarded debris.
  • Avian Flu (Wild birds).
  • Unwanted behaviours such as aggression from members of the public.
  • Dogs (most are friendly) but if loose, lost or disorientated can become aggressive, therefore proceed with caution and seek assistance.

Advice in the event of an emergency:

If someone falls into the water and is in difficulty, call 999 straight away and ask to speak to the fire service and ambulance. Stay on the phone and follow the advice.  When possible, contact Security 0118 378 7799.

Never enter the water to try and save someone, even if you are a strong swimmer.

When safe to do so report the incident to a Manager or Supervisor and remember to report the incident or a near miss incident via the UoR Incident Reporting System. Report an incident

Useful websites:

Float To Live – What To Do In AnEmergency – RNLI

How to rescue someone from drowning RNLI

Summer water safety | Canal & River Trust

Winter water safety | Staying safe on our canals | Canal & River Trust





Version 1 JM August 2023