What "extreme cold" means to you probably depends on where you live. Whether the temperatures are hovering just above freezing or they've dipped well into the double-digit negatives with a wind chill, the cold can be tough on your body.
Dressing for winter might not be much fun and many workers will try and tough it out in their fall jackets, but extreme cold isn't just a comfort issue. Workers who spend time in cold environments are exposed to a number of severe weather-related risks.
The best course of action? You guessed it: know the hazards and be prepared with the proper winter PPE.
Extreme Cold Poses a Serious Threat to Worker Safety
While many people decide to stay cozy indoors, thousands of workers spend their days braving the rain, snow, sleet, and wind. OSHA doesn't have specific standards governing cold work environment safety, but every employer is expected to protect workers from recognized hazards – including winter weather.
Let’s look at the main risks cold weather workers face before we discuss how to protect them with the appropriate winter PPE.
We hear a lot about heat stress (and rightly so!) but temperatures at the other extreme can also be dangerous. Cold stress occurs when the skin temperature lowers, followed by the body temperature. It can lead to serious health problems, including tissue damage and even death (see Cold Stress: Your Winter Safety Guide to learn more).
Factors that increase the likelihood of developing cold stress include:
- Pre-existing health conditions like hypertension and diabetes
- Poor physical conditioning
- Inadequate winter apparel
Hypothermia usually occurs at very low temperatures, but cases have been seen at temperatures above 40°F in individuals chilled from rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water. The illness, characterized by body heat being lost faster than it can be replaced, causes the internal body temperature to drop to less than 95°F.
If a worker is showing mild symptoms like shivering and stomping feet to generate heat, they should be brought to a warmer place and encouraged to stay active. Keep an eye out for symptoms of moderate to severe hypothermia, as they can be deadly if not treated promptly:
- Ceasing of shivering as symptoms get worse
- Loss of coordination
- Confusion and disorientation
- Inability to stand or walk
- Dilated pupils
- Slowed pulse and breathing
- Loss of consciousness
Frostbite is the freezing of skin and the underlying tissue. It can occur in cold temperatures at any level, but the colder it is, the faster frostbite can set in. It typically affects the feet and hands, and its symptoms include:
- Reddened skin with grey or white patches
- Numbness in extremities
- Areas firm to the touch
- Blisters (in severe cases)
Lack of Visibility
While not an illness, the poor visibility that often comes with winter weather also poses a significant threat to safety. High winds and blowing snow can create whiteout conditions, making it difficult for both road traffic and onsite machinery operators to see ground workers.
Managing Winter Weather Risks
Those are some worrisome risks. But there’s good news: with proper precautions, these hazards are entirely manageable and can make working in the winter weather a bit more pleasant.
So, what should workers do to protect themselves from extreme cold?
Wear Hi-Visibility Gear
Weather conditions can change rapidly in the winter, and that means visibility will, too. Sudden blasts of freezing rain, gusts of wind from drifting snow, and even the fact that the sun goes down earlier in the winter months means that drivers and even colleagues will have a harder time noticing workers.
With that kind of unpredictability, hi-visibility clothing with silver reflective tape is a critical component of every outdoor worker's PPE. Whatever workers wear to stay warm needs to be conspicuous in reduced visibility conditions.
Dress in Layers
As a child, you were probably taught to keep warm by dressing in layers. This advice is still relevant today when choosing winter apparel for the jobsite.
Experts recommend that workers in extreme cold conditions wear several (at least three) layers of loose-fitting clothing. Each layer serves a different purpose and helps protect workers from the bitter cold and wind.
- Wicking layer
- Closest to the skin
- Removes moisture from the skin and transfers it to the next layer
- Prevents build-up of sweat that can cool down the body
- Includes synthetic or polypropylene materials – but stay away from cotton
- Light insulating layer
- Thin layer that covers the wicking layer
- Provides insulation even when wet
- Thinsulate™ is a great choice
- Heavy insulating layer
- Helps trap body heat
- Includes heavier fleece or wool sweaters
- Windproof-waterproof layer
- Protects the body from wind, rain, and wet snow
- Should allow ventilation to prevent overheating and allow moisture from perspiration to pass through
The same principle of layering also applies to the head, hands, and feet. Insulated and waterproof gloves and boots are a must. Mitts are often warmer than gloves and they are a great choice for workers who need to hold up traffic control signs all day, but mittens can be impractical for any job that requires manual dexterity or precision. Many PPE manufacturers offer a variety of cold weather work gloves that are thermal lined, waterproof insulated, or that have wind/water resistant shells.
A good hat is also necessary to reduce heat loss and keep the body toasty. Facemasks or balaclavas can be layered under a hard hat to protect the face from frostbite.
Workers should keep a complete change of clothes at the work site in case they get wet or excessively sweaty. Clothing should also be kept clean to help ensure maximum insulation.
Add Some Heat with Battery-Powered Heated Jackets
Some brands offer battery-powered jackets that allow the worker to control their body temperature, in some cases for up to nine hours. They often feature an LED controller with three temperature settings and a pre-heat function. This feature allows workers to adjust the jacket's temperature setting to high, medium, or low, which allows them to control their comfort based on changing weather conditions or their level of exertion or activity.
Don’t Forget the Eyes
Sunglasses and UV protection are often linked with the glorious summer sun. But the glare off snow can be just as damaging to the eyes.
Snow blindness, a form of photokeratitis, occurs when UV rays burn the cornea, and it’s especially common at higher elevations. Since UV rays are invisible, workers need to wear eye protection 100 percent of the time. Safety experts recommend polarized, foamed-sealed safety glasses with anti-fog coating to protect from wind, debris, and sun glare (find out How to Combat Fogging).
How Employers Can Support Workers
Winter clothing is sometimes seen as a personal matter, but it's really part of a worker's PPE. Workplace safety is a collaborative effort, and employers should ensure that proper winter gear is being used. In addition to providing workers with winter safety gear, there are other ways to protect workers from the risks of working in the cold:
- Schedule work according to weather conditions and provide frequent breaks in warm, dry areas
- Use the buddy system to nip cold stress in the bud
- Implement engineering controls like radiant heaters
- Shield work areas from wind, where possible
- Monitor the physical condition of workers throughout their shift
It’s also prudent for employers to provide comprehensive training to all workers, including topics such as:
- Recognizing conditions that can lead to cold stress
- Symptoms of cold stress, hypothermia, and frostbite
- Basic first aid to help those affected by cold weather illnesses
- Appropriate engineering controls, PPE, and safe work practices for extreme cold weather
Working outdoors in the winter presents a unique set of challenges. While the conditions might not be ideal, the risks can be managed with proper cold-weather PPE and comprehensive worker training.