Many employees across a number of industries work outdoors. While we might envy them on a pleasant summer day, in the winter months they might be exposed to unusually cold temperatures or inclement weather.
Some of the workers exposed to frigid weather are those we typically think of as outdoor workers – loggers, miners, construction workers. But there are others we may overlook when we think about winter weather risks. Firefighters, paramedics, and police officers in the northern United States, for example, could be frequently exposed to extreme temperatures when responding to a call.
Unfortunately, it's impossible to just keep most of these workers out of the cold, especially the emergency responders who need to be on the job no matter how terrible the weather. It's important, then, to implement appropriate measures that will ensure their safety at any temperature.
Is It Cold Enough to Worry?
If you're even asking yourself this question, then it's cold enough to worry. But instead of worrying, it's important to take concrete steps to protect everyone in your workforce.
Of course, your own level of worry is not the most objective guide to use in assessing risk. Research suggests that cold-related conditions like chilblains and immersion foot can be a problem as soon as the temperature goes below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. If you can expect to see that kind of reading the thermometer in the near future, it's time to start getting ready.
When you're evaluating the risks, it's important not to focus only on air temperature. Wind chill, moisture levels, and other weather indicators also play a key role in determining whether workers' safety and lives are at risk. The human body may react very differently to a day that is 35 degrees and sunny with calm winds than it would in 35-degree temperature with sleet raining down and strong, gusting winds.
Now that I Am Worried, What Should I Do?
There are numerous steps you should take to address these concerns. One of the most important ones is appropriately educating your workforce about frostbite, hypothermia, and the other potential cold-related dangers they face.
Workers need to be able to identify the symptoms of these conditions at the early stages so they can prevent them from worsening or undertake any required first aid or medical intervention.
Workers should also be educated on the benefits of healthier decisions that will help them deal with the cold. A nutritious diet, good hydration, and abstention or moderation with drugs and alcohol can all help the body resist the harmful effects of the cold.
Some administrative controls could also improve worker safety during the winter. One example would be shortening the work day to avoid working in the colder evenings, or scheduling outdoor projects for other months of the year and spending the winter focused on work that can be done indoors. Since workers can benefit from warming up regularly, scheduling more breaks during the cold season would be a proactive step to keeping everyone safe.
But, Even That Isn't Enough to Guarantee Worker Safety
The steps highlighted above are important strides to keep workers safe in inclement weather. But, they aren't the only measures employers should implement. Workers also need to have seasonally appropriate protective equipment.
During the winter, you should consider equipment or clothing that keeps a worker warm and dry part of their PPE. And it's not just a matter of comfort: if a worker's clothing becomes wet, they are far more likely to be affected by hypothermia and other cold-related problems such as immersion foot.
So, what are the most important clothing items to protect people in cold or damp situations?
We lose most of our body heat through the extremities and the head. These are, however, the body parts that are the most likely to be inadequately protected from the cold. Hats should be considered a mandatory component of winter safety gear. As temperatures drop, a mask should be added to protect the lungs from inhaling extremely cold air.
Insulated and waterproof gloves are also essential. These should keep the hands warm and dry without unreasonably impeding the employee's ability to carry out their usual work.
Waterproof boots and wool socks are also a good idea. Your run of the mill work boots will accumulate water easily if you're working in snow. It's unpleasant to be sure, but it can also result in immersion foot, which can be painful and lead to infection.
Research also suggests that layering clothing is the most effective way to stay warm. Although people have different preferences when it comes to layering, it's generally recommended that the internal layer be made of moisture-wicking fabric. This layer will absorb sweat, keeping the wearer dry. Over that, there should be fabric that provides a lot of warmth (wool is a good option). Finally, the outer layer should be waterproof to protect against snow or rain dampening the worker's clothing.
What About the Budget?
You can get a waterproof coat or jacket on the cheap, and warm socks won't break the bank either. But what about something like high-quality waterproof boots? Those can put a strain on someone's budget, and the average employee might not be able to afford them. But having them show up to work in the dead of winter in their worn summer work boots could be detrimental to their health and physical well-being.
Recognizing these dangers, many employers have stepped up to the plate to provide these pieces of safety equipment to their employees. OSHA generally does not mandate that companies provide this type of safety equipment, so it often falls to the employer's discretion. But again, if you're seeing winter items as part of PPE, then it makes sense to supply them the way you would with earplugs or safety glasses. Besides, the small purchase costs are more than offset by improved worker health and safety, not to mention the additional productivity that comes when workers are working comfortably.
It's easy to shrug off winter wear as "Not my responsibility." But protecting workers from frostbite, hypothermia, and other cold-related conditions is. And that means taking reasonable steps to help them stay warm and dry.
Check out the rest of our content about Personal Protective Equipment here.