How to Deal with Winter Weather on the Construction Site
Winter poses special difficulties on the construction site, but preparing ahead can reduce risks.
After braving the intense summer heat, you look forward to the cooler fall weather. But when winter rears its ugly head, it can cause a number of problems for unprepared workers and job sites.
Winter can be cold, messy, and sometimes downright dangerous. By taking the time to adequately prepare, you’re helping ensure your workers stay safe without comprising important project deadlines.
Understanding Winter Challenges
Cold and icy weather can pose a number of safety risks to workers on a construction site. Let’s look at some of the key hazards employees might face during this season.
Exposure to Freezing Temperatures
Cold stress is a major concern for workers in cold weather. It occurs when skin temperature lowers, followed by body temperature, which can lead to serious health problems including tissue damage and even death.
Factors that increase the likelihood of developing cold stress include:
- Wetness or dampness
- Pre-existing health conditions like hypertension and diabetes
- Poor physical conditioning
- Improper winter apparel
(Learn more in Cold Stress: Your Winter Safety Guide.)
Hypothermia can also be a concern. It happens when body heat is lost faster than it can be replaced, causing the internal body temperature to drop below 35°C. Symptoms include shivering (note, however, that shivering ceases as hypothermia sets in), loss of coordination, and slowed pulse or breathing.
In extreme cold, unprotected skin is also vulnerable to frostbite. This typically affects the hands and feet and includes symptoms like reddened skin with grey or white patches, numbness in the extremities, and areas that are firm to the touch. In severe cases, blisters may also occur.
If temperatures hit 40°C or lower, it is recommended that all non-emergency outdoor work ceases until the thermometer registers a safer temperature.
Slips and Falls
Walking surfaces are often covered with snow and ice during this time of year, and workers are at increased risk of slipping and falling. Make sure that the snow gets cleared off of these surfaces regularly and that no one works on a slippery surface until the ice has been removed.
Snow and Ice Removal Operations
Clearing away the snow is important, but it has to be done safely. Anyone who shovels snow regularly can attest to the fact that it can be a strenuous activity.
There are, first of all, ergonomic injuries that can result from improper shoveling techniques or by picking up too much snow with the shovel, creating a heavy load that is often carried or thrown awkwardly. As winter sets in, it is worth taking the time to go over safe shoveling techniques with your crew.
Cardiac arrest is also a problem. Not only is shoveling a strenuous activity, but cold temperatures can constrict arteries, which increases blood pressure and the risk of heart attack. Workers with heart conditions or heart attack risk factors should not be tasked with clearing snow from the job site.
Inclement weather often results in severely decreased visibility on job sites. High winds and blowing snow can create whiteout conditions, making it difficult for both road traffic and onsite machinery to see ground workers.
Preparing the Job Site for Winter Weather
Conditions might get harsh starting around November, but there are steps you can take to make sure both your site and your workers are prepared for the weather that's ahead.
Provide a Warm Break Area
While outdoor work is unavoidable in the construction industry, it’s essential that workers have a warm place to take a rest.
It doesn't have to be fancy – it could just be a heated trailer or a tent with portable heaters – but it should shield workers from the elements and allow them to warm up before getting back to their work. Consider providing warm drinks, but avoid coffee since it can increase heart rate and give a false sense of warmth.
Schedule Regular Snow Removal and Salt Applications
Effective and efficient snow removal and salt applications are imperative. Snow and ice not only block access to materials, but can also be extremely slippery.
Unfortunately, as mentioned above, these snow removal operations can also be dangerous. Mitigate the risks by:
- Using appropriate fall protection for workers removing snow from rooftops
- Providing proper training and PPE to workers using snow blowers and other mechanized snow removal equipment
- Monitoring workers conducting snow removal for signs of overexertion or cold stress
If it’s possible, having a dedicated snow removal service to complete this job can ease worker stress and ensure they aren’t worn out before their real work even begins.
Educate Workers About Cold Stress
In severe winter temperatures, it doesn’t take long for cold stress, frostbite, or hypothermia to set in. Providing educational sessions that teach workers how to identify and treat the early signs of cold stress can help prevent serious injuries on the construction site.
Prescribe Weather-specific PPE
Workers spending time in the cold should be outfitted with PPE that’s appropriate for the climate. Experts recommend that workers dress in four layers:
- Light insulation
- Heavy insulation
- Waterproof and windproof
Workers should be provided with high-visibility gear to ensure they can be seen, and wearing insulated boots and gloves are a must. Body heat can also escape through the head, so a good hat is necessary to reduce heat loss and keep the body warm. Workers can layer facemasks or balaclavas under the hat to protect the face from frostbite.
Harsh winter weather brings challenges to construction sites. But by being proactive and implementing a few key changes, employers can ensure their workers stay safe throughout the season.
Written by Jessica Barrett
Jessica is a freelance writer and editor from Toronto, Canada. She specializes in creating content for nonprofits and has written for organizations working in human rights, conservation, education, and health care. She loves traveling and food, speaks Spanish, and has two dogs, one of whom she rescued while living in Mexico.