As we deal with ongoing winter weather, it’s important to be prepared for this year and next. In this article, we’re detailing the extreme risks associated with winter weather and sharing our top cold weather safety tips to protect your workers on outdoor jobsites.
Types of cold stress
There are a number of risks that can occur from losing body heat when working in cold and wet conditions. Below are the most common types of cold stress and how to respond to each condition.
Frostbite occurs when the skin and tissues become frozen, hard and numb. Warning signs for frostbite include reddening of the skin and white or gray patches that develop most commonly on the fingers, toes, nose or ears. It’s also possible for blisters to occur on these same areas, and the worker may experience tingling, aching or a loss of feeling. If not treated, frostbite can cause permanent damage or even require amputation in the most extreme cases.
If frostbite occurs, move the worker to a warm, dry area. You’ll want to slowly warm the affected area by gently placing it in a warm water bath around 105 degrees (F) and monitor the water temperature. It’s important to not warm the area too quickly, as this can cause tissue damage. Do not rub or pour water over the affected area. Warming can take up to 40 minutes. Once the affected area has been warmed and normal feeling has returned, it should be dried and wrapped to keep it warm. Seek medical attention as soon as possible, as re-exposure to cold conditions can cause severe tissue damage.
When the body temperature drops below 95 degrees (F), hypothermia can occur. Hypothermia most commonly occurs in extreme cold conditions, but can even happen in higher temperatures if the person becomes wet. One of the biggest warning signs of hypothermia is extreme shivering. Body temperature that is abnormally low can also affect brain function and can cause confusion, slurred speech, loss of coordination, unconsciousness and even death.
In case of hypothermia, call 911 immediately. Move the worker to a warm, dry area and remove any wet clothing and replace with dry clothing. Use layers of blankets to wrap the entire body, including the head and neck. If they’re available, place hot packs under the armpits, on the sides of the chest and near the groin. If the person is conscious, offer warm, sweetened fluids (no caffeine or alcohol). Do not rub the body or place the person in a warm water bath.
Trench foot, also known as immersion foot, can happen from prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions. It doesn’t necessarily occur just from the cold, but more commonly from the feet being wet because wet feet lose heat much more quickly. Symptoms of trench foot include tingling, reddening, swelling, numbness or blisters on the feet.
If trench foot is suspected, remove wet shoes and socks immediately. Dry the feet and avoid using them, if possible. Keep the feet elevated and avoid walking. Seek medical attention if necessary.
Snow blindness can be caused from the reflection of light off of the snow. Symptoms include red, itchy eyes and increased sensitivity to light. To treat snow blindness, it’s best to stay indoors, rest the eyes and bandage them if necessary. Use sunglasses as a prevention method.
Added cold weather risks
It’s important to remember that the wind can make the atmosphere considerably colder. Depending on the wind speed, it can make the outside temperature feel much colder and increase the risk of cold stress. Use the Windchill Calculator from the National Weather Service to calculate the windchill temperature. The higher the windchill, the faster frostbite will occur.
Who’s most at risk?
While cold weather can be hazardous for all workers, there are certain groups of people that have a higher risk of being affected. Workers with pre-existing health conditions like diabetes, hypertension and hypothyroidism, as well as the elderly or those in poor physical health, are more at risk for cold stress. Be mindful of your workers’ health conditions to understand who might be more affected on the jobsite.
Cold weather safety tips
While cold weather may be inevitable during the winter months, there are many proactive steps you can take to prevent hazards and keep your workers safe. Here are the top cold weather safety tips for outdoor workers.
Train staff to recognize cold weather conditions and potential hazards.
It’s important to get ahead of the cold weather and make sure your workers are properly trained to recognize and treat weather-related incidents. Familiarize your workers with the signs and symptoms of cold stress so they know what to be on the lookout for, and be sure they have
basic knowledge of first aid for treating cold-related incidents in the field.
Dress appropriately for the cold.
Maintaining proper body heat is one of the most important things you can do to prevent cold stress. Dress in loose layers that are not too tight or restrictive to maintain good blood circulation. It’s important to cover the head and neck, which is where the most heat loss can occur. Three layers of clothing are recommended:
- An inner layer made from synthetic fabric
- A middle layer made from wool or another synthetic fabric to provide insulation and absorb sweat
- An outer layer made from nylon or waterproof material to protect from the wind and cold
In addition, wear footwear or boots that are well insulated, and change socks frequently to stay as dry as possible. Gloves or cold weather mittens should also be worn.
Seek shelter from winter weather.
Use existing buildings as a shelter during bad conditions or even use automobiles if necessary to take a break from the cold. Any shelter can be used that will protect workers from the wind and wintery elements.
Take frequent breaks in warm, dry areas.
When working in cold weather conditions, workers can become fatigued and can become affected much more quickly. Be sure to schedule frequent breaks in warm, dry areas to prevent cold stress.
Work during the warmest part of the day.
If possible, schedule work to be performed during the middle of the day when temperatures are likely to be higher. Check the weather forecast and plan work schedules accordingly.
Use salt to avoid slips and falls.
Snow and ice should be cleared from outdoor walking paths as quickly as possible after a winter storm. Spread salt on paved surfaces, being careful to avoid nearby grass and plants. Encourage workers to walk slowly and wear proper footwear that is well insulated and made with rubber treads. Even when inside, be careful when walking on wet floors.
Provide warm fluids.
Whenever your workers are performing work in cold conditions, you should have warm, sweet fluids on hand. These can be sugar water or sports drinks. It’s important to avoid caffeinated drinks like coffee and tea, which can make conditions worse.
Equip vehicles with emergency kits.
In case of emergency, it’s a good idea to equip company vehicles with winter safety kits that include items like an ice scraper, snow brush, shovel, a flashlight, extra batteries, a blanket, road maps, snacks, water and a change of clothes. If stranded in a vehicle, it’s best to remain in the vehicle and call for an emergency assistance.
Be cautious when shoveling snow.
If shoveling snow is necessary on the jobsite, it’s important to use caution and monitor worker safety to avoid injury and exhaustion. Shovel fresh powdery snow as opposed to packed snow, as it will be easier to lift. Advise workers to push snow, if possible, and always lift with the legs bent, not the back.
Doug Sicking is the president & CEO of Safety International LLC. This article was originally published on the Safety International LLC website. For additional information, please visit safety-international.com.