How to Prepare For Cold Weather Work - Worksite Medical
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It doesn’t take a blizzard to make working in winter weather unsafe.

The threat can simply begin with low temperatures and creep up from there, putting workers at a high risk of cold stress.

Cold stress is a term that comprises all manner of health issues that may result when the body is unable to properly warm itself. Trench foot, frostbite, and hypothermia may result, leading to tissue damage and even death. 

How can employers keep their workplaces safe?

First, know that cold stress is not limited to outdoor work areas only. If indoor areas are uninsulated, the cold can creep up there as well. One of the best and most obvious ways to prevent this is to dress properly for the cold.

While there is no set OSHA standard requiring employees to provide winter weather gear such as coats, gloves, and hats, many employers choose to provide their workers with gear regardless. 


Dangers of Cold Weather 


Cold stress can be especially difficult to prepare for as temperatures aren’t the only indicator of danger.

Wind and moisture levels can also create issues for cold weather workers. According to the Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety, water (including sweat) can displace body heat 25 times faster than dry air. 

Wind chill is an especially important factor as it can literally blow away the body’s protective external layer of heat. The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists consider all these factors when developing the three thresholds of cold stress hazards:

Little danger: Freezing of exposed skin within one hour

Danger: Freezing of exposed skin within one minute

Extreme danger: Freezing of exposed skin within 30 seconds


What to Watch For 


Trench Foot: Also known as immersion, trench foot can occur when feet are exposed to prolonged wet and cold conditions. Tingling, pain, and swelling can occur as wet feet lose heat 25 times faster than dry feet. Trench foot can be avoided by providing proper footwear and training employees to recognize these conditions.

Frostbite: Frostbite is the freezing of the skin and tissue. This can lead to permanent damage of the body and even amputation. Loss of feeling or grey/white patches in the skin may indicate frostbite. Always call a medical professional when symptoms are present, as more severe tissue damage can occur if the body is not re-warmed properly.

Hypothermia: Hypothermia occurs when the body’s temperature drops below 95 degrees. Prolonged exposure to the cold can use up energy, making the body unable to warm itself. Although hypothermia is more likely at low temperatures, it can even occur in mildly cool temperatures (above 40 degrees). This is why short shift rotation and breaks are important.


Dress properly for cold work 


Employers should also take the time to educate employees on how to dress properly for winter weather work.

OSHA has a few key recommendations on what employees should wear: 

  • Wear at least three layers of loose-fitting clothing. Layering provides better insulation.
    • An inner layer of wool, silk, or synthetic (polypropylene) to keep moisture away from the body. 
    • A middle layer of wool or synthetic to provide insulation even when wet.
    • An outer wind and rain protection layer that allows some ventilation to prevent overheating.
  • Tight clothing reduces blood circulation. Warm blood needs to be circulated to the extremities. Insulated coat/jacket (water-resistant if necessary)
  • Knit mask to cover face and mouth (if needed)
  • Hat that will cover your ears as well. A hat will help keep your whole body warmer. Hats reduce the amount of body heat that escapes from your head.
  • Insulated gloves (water resistant if necessary), to protect the hands
  • Insulated and waterproof boots to protect the feet


Use Engineering Controls 


Even something as simple as a space heater can be effective in warming an outdoor work area.

Radiant heaters can come in industrial strengths to warm worksites such as outdoor security areas. Wind chill and drafts can quickly cause an environment to go from cold to unbearable.

Protect employees with shielded work areas or barriers when possible.  


Smart Shift Scheduling


OSHA offers several safety tools available to employers.

They offer an online tool for working in cold weather with work/warm-up schedule for four-hour shifts. The schedule was created by the ACGIH and works by translating wind and air temperature into a maximum work period. 

For example, an air temperature between  -25° and -29° F translates to a maximum work period of 75 minutes. However, if the wind reaches 20 mph or more and the temperature is between -15° and -19° F, the maximum work period is 40 minutes.

As a general rule of thumb, employees should be allowed a 15-minute break for every hour of work. For temperatures below zero, workers should work for shorter periods with breaks that are equal in length  (i.e., work for five minutes and warm up for five minutes).


Implement Safe Work Practices


In addition to clothing and engineering controls, there are other safe work practices to follow on a cold weather worksite.

A few no-brainers: schedule work during the warmest part of the day, typically from 12 p.m. – 2 p.m., monitor weather conditions to avoid working during storms, and develop a safety plan for your specific jobsite that can identify potential hazards. 

Other recommendations from OSHA include: 

  • Limit time outdoors on cold days
  • Use relief workers to assign extra workers for long, demanding jobs
  • Provide warm areas for use during break periods
  • Provide warm liquids (no alcohol) to workers
  • Monitor workers who are at risk of cold stress
  • Monitoring the weather conditions during a winter storm, having a reliable means of communicating with workers, and being able to stop work or evacuate when necessary
  • Acclimatize new workers and those returning after time away from work by gradually increasing their workload, and allowing more frequent breaks in warm areas, as they build up a tolerance for working in the cold environment
  • Have a means of communicating with workers, especially in remote areas
  • Stay tuned in to notifications about severe weather: outdoor sirens, radio, and television. 

NOAA Weather Radio is a great way to stay informed. 


About Worksite Medical


Keep your employees safe and healthy year-round with regular medical surveillance from Worksite Medical.

We provide on-site medical testing that will help you remain OSHA-compliant — and avoid costly health violations and penalties. In most cases, OSHA requires medical surveillance testing, and at no cost to employees.

Worksite Medical makes that program easier with mobile medical testing.

We conduct on-site respirator fit tests, as well as audiometric exams, pulmonary function tests and heavy metal lab work, right on your job site. We also keep accurate, easy-to-access medical records for your convenience. You’ll keep your employees at work, and stay ahead of OSHA inspections.

With Worksite Medical, a mobile medical testing unit — we can bring all the resources of a lab to you. Our certified lab technicians can perform both qualitative and quantitative respirator tests to ensure a perfect fit.

Protect your team and your workplace now with Worksite Medical. Not sure what you need? Try our medical testing wizard here.

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