“Baby, it’s cold outside” means only one thing to safety geeks like me: winter work and the dangerous conditions that accompany it.
Employees who regularly work outside in winter aren’t just feeling a chill -- they also face real occupational hazards related to cold exposure, including health problems like frostbite, trench foot, and hypothermia. Employees should be trained to be prepared for the cold weather and watch for signs of problems in themselves and other workers. But it’s also the responsibility of employers to take precautions to limit prolonged exposure to the elements.
Worker winter safety: minimizing personal risks when working in cold weather
Workers can prepare for cold outdoor work by doing the following:
- Wear sufficient warm and dry clothing. Have a change of dry clothing available (including underwear and socks) in the event clothing gets wet from sweat or other conditions, as wet clothes enhance coldness.
- OSHA recommends workers wear at least three layers of clothing when working outside in winter weather:
- An outer layer to break the wind and allow some ventilation
- A middle layer of wool or synthetic fabric to absorb sweat and retain insulation in a damp environment (down is a great insulator, as long as it doesn’t get wet)
- An inner layer of cotton or synthetic weave to allow ventilation
- Avoid wearing tight clothing, as it can restrict blood circulation
- Wear a knit mask to cover face and mouth, where needed
- Cover your head and ears with a hat to reduce the amount of body heat that escapes from the head
- Wear insulated gloves and boots
- Avoid taking drugs or medications that impair judgment or inhibit the body’s response to cold (such as alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, etc).
- Stay hydrated; you may not have the desire to drink as much fluid as your body needs, so keep track of how many ounces of water you drink each day to keep your body healthy.
Employer precautions for cold weather work safety
Employers should also take measures to prevent cold-related health problems in outdoor workers, including the following:
- Ensure workers take periodic breaks from the cold whenever needed.
- If a worker is in a new position and unaccustomed to working outside, allow them to acclimate through periods of adjustment before they start working full shifts outside.
- Recognize the symptoms of cold-related stress and teach employees to recognize them, too. Symptoms include heavy shivering, uncomfortable coldness, severe fatigue, drowsiness, or euphoria.
- Shield work areas from drafty or windy conditions.
- Have an on-site source of heat for workers (air jets, radiant heaters, warm plates) to help them stay warm.
- Minimize, whenever possible, the amount of time that workers must spend outside and perform outdoor-only tasks during the warmest hours of the day.
- Implement a buddy system so workers can recognize signs of cold-related stress and/or exhaustion in each other.
Employees with diseases including diabetes, heart, vascular, and thyroid problems may be more susceptible to winter elements than others and may need more adjustments, even with limited cold exposure. The same is true for elderly workers and even workers suffering from a common cold. Finally, use good judgement and err on the side of caution: if it’s possible to adjust a work schedule to minimize cold exposure, do. It may help keep your employees as healthy and productive as possible.
For more tips on staying safe in winter work, please contact us.