Loss Control Insights
Winter Weather: 8 Tips to Prep Your Employees
The freezing temperatures and bitter-cold wind chills of winter weather pose safety issues similar to those faced during the summer heat. “Instead of dealing with rising body temperatures and heat stress, employers need to protect workers from the opposite problems—lowered body temperatures, hypothermia and frostbite,” Senior Industrial Hygienist Dave Havick says.
Surprisingly, research shows that winter cold kills more Americans than heat. Of the 2,000 deaths that occur due to inclement weather each year, 63% are caused by cold and only 31% by heat. Here are eight tips to help you manage the challenges and dangers of hypothermia and frostbite.
- Dress for the weather. It’s important to protect the body’s core when exposed to winter weather. To keep workers’ body temperatures from dropping into the hypothermia danger zone (95 degrees Fahrenheit and lower), require them to wear multiple layers of clothing. The number of layers and type of clothing depends on how physical the work is, how much movement is required, the amount of moisture in the air and the velocity of the wind. For example, firefighters need an outer layer that protects them from water and wind, while other outdoor workers require breathable fabrics. The middle layer should provide adequate insulation for the type of work involved, and the inner layer (with skin contact) should have a wicking fabric to keep sweat from chilling the body.
- Watch out for signs in others. While it may be difficult to identify hypothermia on the job site, there are visible symptoms. Dave suggests a buddy system during periods of extreme cold, so employees can watch for symptoms in coworkers. Look for shivering, amnesia, poor judgment and apathy. As the symptoms progress, you may notice stupor and a loss of reflexes. If these symptoms occur, call for medical assistance immediately and check the worker’s core temperature.
- Protect your extremities. Hands, fingers, feet, toes, ears and faces are most susceptible to frostbite. “Unprotected extremities can freeze in as little as two minutes on a cold and windy day,” Dave says. To prevent frostbite, he recommends wearing as many layers on extremities as possible, while still being able to perform assigned tasks.
- Know the symptoms. Signs of frostbite begin with pain, followed by numbness. The cold stops blood flow to extremities, causing them to turn white.
Mittens contain heat around the fingers better than gloves, but they are not always a realistic option for dexterity reasons. Safety suppliers can help you find the warmest gloves, as well as boots, with the right amount of dexterity to complete your jobs. Other winter essentials include face masks and heavy socks. Battery-powered apparel such as socks and gloves may also be useful.
Other Preventive Techniques
In addition to proper clothing, Dave suggests these steps to help prevent hypothermia and frostbite.
- Offer a warm-up location. Provide a heated location nearby where workers can cycle in as needed to stay safe and warm. This area could be a heated trailer, company trucks or something more creative. Dave recalls a fire department that utilized city busses as a warm, dry space for firefighters to rest, change into dry clothing and drink hot fluids.
- Provide heated equipment. Holding the metal handle on a jackhammer is a hand-numbing task in the cold, but a heated handle can help.
- Limit time in the cold. As wind chill temperatures plummet, increase your warm-up cycles and monitor conditions. Try setting a safe temperature minimum, and if that limit is reached, increase warm-up times or keep workers inside.
- Provide training and reminders. Train supervisors and all employees to recognize the signs and symptoms of frostbite and hypothermia. In dangerous weather conditions, put supervisors on high alert, and use your established buddy system to ensure that each worker has someone watching out for them.
Portable heaters are another option. However, in enclosed work areas, carbon monoxide poisoning from gas or propane heaters is a potential danger. If a portable heater isn’t possible or unsafe, a tent around the work area can block wind and offer some protection.