There’s no question that the hot summer weather can be tough to work in. But come winter, the cold weather poses a new set of challenges for workers on outdoor jobsites.
When we think about outdoor workers, the construction industry immediately comes to mind. But construction workers aren’t alone – many industries and occupations are exposed to the cold and the elements. Postal workers, utility and telecommunication workers, emergency responders, and delivery drivers all spend a significant amount of time outside of temperature-controlled environments.
So, what can you do to protect yourself if you're one of the countless workers who is exposed to cold weather on the job?
10 Tips to Keep You Safe this Winter
1. Participate in Winter Safety Training
If your employer doesn't provide comprehensive cold weather safety training to everyone working outdoors, encourage them to do so.
Winter safety training should include:
- Identifying dangerous winter environmental and workplace conditions
- Recognizing cold stress injuries and illnesses and how to help workers affected by them (learn more in Cold Stress: Your Winter Safety Guide)
- Dressing appropriately for the conditions
- Eating and drinking for cold weather work
2. Use the Buddy System
Working in pairs or small groups makes good sense in any potentially dangerous situation, including hazardous weather.
It’s not always easy to recognize the signs of cold stress in yourself – and that’s where your buddy comes in. A partner can keep an eye out for signs and symptoms and take appropriate action. It’s a simple way to prevent cold-induced illness or injury before it takes hold.
3. Learn the Signs of Cold-Induced Illnesses and Injuries
Of course, the buddy system is only effective if workers are educated about the signs and symptoms of cold stress and other cold weather-related illnesses and injuries. Here’s what you need to watch out for.
Cold stress is one of the most common conditions for outdoor workers. It happens when the skin temperature lowers, followed by the body temperature. Several factors increase the likelihood of developing cold stress, including:
- Wetness or dampness
- Pre-existing health conditions like hypertension and diabetes
- Poor physical conditioning
- Improper winter apparel
Hypothermia usually takes hold in extreme cold when body heat is lost faster than it can be replaced and the internal body temperature drops to below 95°F. Workers displaying mild symptoms like shivering and stomping feet should be brought to a warm place and encouraged to stay active.
Moderate to severe hypothermia can be deadly if not treated, and its symptoms include:
- Ceasing of shivering as symptoms worsen
- Loss of coordination
- Confusion or disorientation
- Inability to stand or walk
- Dilated pupils
- Slowed pulse and breathing
- Loss of consciousness
Frostbite occurs when the skin and underlying tissue freezes and typically affects the hands and feet. The colder it is, the faster frostbite can set in.
Watch for these symptoms:
- Extremely cold skin that turns numb, hard, and pale
- Blisters or swelling
- Joint or muscle stiffness
4. Keep Work Areas Free of Snow and Ice
Slips, trips, and falls can happen at any time of the year, but snow and ice tends to up the ante.
Walkways, stairways, and other work areas must be kept clear from snow and ice. Items that may pose a trip or slip hazard should be moved out of the way, and temporary signs or barricades should be used to mark potentially slippery areas (like wet floors).
It’s also a good idea to keep your hands free while walking, if possible. It allows you to steady yourself or break a fall if you do happen to slip.
5. Dress in Layers
Experts recommend that workers wear at least three (and preferably four) layers of loose-fitting clothing. Each one serves a different purpose:
- Removes moisture from the skin and transfers it to the next layer
- Prevents build up of sweat, which contributes to cold stress
- Choose synthetic or polypropylene long johns, tops, and socks – avoid cotton
Light Insulating Layer
- Goes over the wicking later and provides insulation, even when wet
- Opt for a light fleece or Thinsulate top
Heavy Insulating Layer
- Goes over the light insulating layer and helps trap heat in the body
- Heavier fleece or a wool sweater are both effective choices
- Outer layer protects against wind, rain, and wet snow
- Goretex jackets are a great choice; they are ventilated to prevent overheating and allow moisture from sweat to pass through
You’ll also want to invest in proper footwear. The winter is synonymous with slippery conditions, and it’s critical to choose boots that offer excellent traction. Look for waterproof material that you can layer warm wool socks under.
6. Always Wear a Hat
Anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of our body heat escapes through the top of our heads, so wearing a hat can considerably improve your body’s ability to retain heat. Workers who want to protect their face may wish to layer a balaclava or facemask underneath the hat to ward off frostbite.
7. Wear Hi-Viz or Heated Gear
It's not just the cold and slipperiness that increases risk in winter; it's the visibility, too. Winter weather can be unpredictable – one moment it could be clear, and the next could bring whiteout conditions.
Workers wearing reflective apparel will be visible to moving vehicles on the job site and off, reducing the chances of a tragic workplace accident.
Another cold weather apparel option is to wear battery-powered heated gear, which provides hours of core body warmth and continuous heat.
8. Stay Hydrated – With the Right Fluids
Coffee is a common sight during the colder weather, but it’s not a great choice for workers looking to stay warm and healthy. In fact, caffeine (including that found in sodas) should be avoided entirely, as it restricts blood vessels and can impede the body’s ability to heat itself.
Instead, choose warm water or sports drinks, and make sure you’re getting about four liters per day.
9. Adjust Your Work Schedule, When Possible
Some parts of the day are colder than others. When possible, scheduling work for the warmest part of the day can alleviate some of the stress on workers and reduce the possibility of cold-induced illness and injury.
Consider re-scheduling work entirely if the wind-chill is particularly bad or dangerous weather is moving through the area.
10. Take Regular Breaks
When working out in the cold, take frequent short breaks in a warm, dry shelter to allow your body to warm up. A shelter equipped with space heater and warm, caffeine-free drinks is even better.
Winter work isn’t always comfortable or fun, but that doesn’t mean it has to be unsafe. By preparing for the conditions, learning about and managing the risks, and dressing the part, you can ensure you’re ready to tackle whatever Mother Nature throws at you.