Baby, It’s Cold Outside

It’s that time of year when Mother Nature lets us know who’s boss. While most folks brave the cold-weather season pretty well, it's important to know how to protect yourself from the dangers of working outside during the winter months. From construction, forestry and power line maintenance, to farming, municipal work and the oil & gas industries, it’s extremely important to properly plan and prepare for outdoor work. Failing to do so can result in serious injury or worse. Cold can be just as deadly as extreme heat if not managed properly.

During the winter months, be sure to assess weather conditions and related risks on an ongoing basis and make whatever adjustments are necessary to stay safe. Here are some tips and pointers that can help:

Make a Plan

In Canada, as in most countries, there are no maximum exposure limits for cold working environments. That’s why it’s important for companies and municipalities to establish their own policies and procedures when it comes to outdoor work in these cases. These should include, but not be limited to, the following:

  • Specific supervisory personnel assigned to monitor and manage extreme weather issues
  • Having adequate measurement tools available to monitor temperature and wind speed
  • Conducting formal risk assessments for workplace hazards and the proper use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
  • The provision of work / warm-up schedules for extreme cold environments
  • Scheduling work for the warmest part of the day where possible
  • Access to warm/dry shelters to allow workers to recover throughout their shifts
  • The use of a ‘buddy system’ to ensure work tasks in extreme conditions are undertaken with partners for greater safety
  • The establishment of defined first aid procedures and access to applicable equipment and supplies
  • Proper training for management and staff on equipment use, first aid, workplace hazards, reporting, PPE and recognizing the signs of cold weather related injuries

Slips, Falls & Cold Equipment

News flash – ice and snow are slippery. Make sure your job site stays safe by keeping it clear.

Don’t allow snow or ice to accumulate in work areas. Clear them off immediately, especially overhead.

Keep ladders and scaffolds well-maintained and protected from snow and ice. If possible, cover them before the end of each shift.

Wear shoes or boots with non-slip or non-skid soles. Use sand or salt for traction where necessary.

Always wear a hard hat when going outdoors. This should protect you from falling objects, as well as impacts caused by slips on icy surfaces.

Wear proper fall protection when working in elevated, slippery areas. For additional protection, consider installing safety rails.

For work below the freezing point, metal handles on tools and equipment should ideally be covered by thermal insulating material.

Ensure that all tools and equipment are ready for the winter with proper maintenance and regular inspections, to avoid any added risk of breakdown or malfunction that could cause injury.

Cold Weather Health

When you work in extreme temperatures, your body has to adapt and find a balance in order to maintain a constant inner temperature. The most common cold stress injuries include frostbite (damage to extremities like fingers, toes, ears etc.) and hypothermia (a dangerous lowering of the body’s core temperature). Onset of hypothermia is a serious medical emergency. Ensure that all personnel are well-versed in the signs, symptoms and responses needed for these cold stress injuries.

The risk of injury related to cold weather working conditions can be increased when workers smoke, drink alcohol, are fatigued, in poor physical condition, or suffer from illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension or cardiovascular disease.

Balanced meals and adequate liquid intake are essential to maintain body heat and prevent dehydration, so be sure to eat and drink properly and frequently. Working in the cold requires more energy than in warm weather because the body is working to keep itself warm. Avoid caffeinated beverages (they act as a diuretic) and try to consume warm, calorie-rich foods such as soups or pasta.

Clothing & PPE

Clothing should be selected to suit the temperature, weather conditions (e.g., wind speed, precipitation), the level and duration of activity, and job design. These factors are important to consider so that you can regulate the amount of heat and perspiration you generate while working.

For the best effect, clothing should be worn in multiple layers, as the air between layers of clothing provides better insulation than the clothing itself. Having several layers also gives you the option to open or remove a layer before you get too warm and start sweating, or to add a layer when you take a break. It also allows you to accommodate changing temperatures and weather conditions. Note that successive outer layers should be larger than the inner ones, otherwise the outermost layer will compress the inner layers and will decrease the insulation properties of the clothing.

Socks and undergarments should serve to wick away moisture. Cotton against the skin isn’t a good idea.

Insulated, waterproof footwear is also important. Be sure to keep a spare pair of boots handy so they’re always dry.

The human body loses a lot of warmth through the head area. Head-gear including a hat or hood and full-face protection when the wind is howling will make a big difference.

Use thick or hi-tech gloves for the best protection. You may even need several different types depending on weather conditions and operational capability.

Clothing must be dry at all times. Moisture should be kept off clothes by removing snow prior to entering heated shelters. Also try to ‘vent’ perspiration while resting by removing layers or through neck, sleeve, waist and ankle openings.

Work clothing should be kept as clean as possible, since dirt fills-in the air cells in the fibers of clothing and will inhibit its insulating ability.

Small hand and feet warmer packets work very well. Carry a good supply and use them to ward off the extreme cold.

In extremely cold conditions where eye protection is required, eyewear must be separated from the nose and mouth to prevent exhaled moisture from fogging and frosting. Select protective gear that is appropriate for the work you are doing, and for protection against ultraviolet light from the sun, glare from the snow, blowing snow/ice crystals, and high winds at cold temperatures.

Cold weather and snow are good for some things, but working outside isn’t one of them. With a little common sense and a healthy dose of safe workplace practice, you can minimize risk, maximize comfort and get through the next few months safely.

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