How Cold Weather Affects Workers at Heights
Certainly, cold weather poses hazards to anybody working outdoors, but the higher you go, the more intense the conditions can get. Workers on the ground are facing different hazards than workers on the roof of an office building, who are facing different hazards than construction workers on a skyscraper. What seems like a normal winter day on the ground could be high winds and extreme temperatures at heights. Companies and their workforces must understand what they could encounter to properly prepare for them.
If you’re getting your wind information online, the chances are you’re getting ground-level readings. Depending on the height at which you’re working, those speeds can increase 5, 10, 15 MPH or more. Planning for a ground-level wind speed when you’re working up in the air could catch workers by surprise, including lift and crane operators. Scaffolding could be at risk, if not properly built and secured. In cold weather, scaffold users tend to want to put sheeting up to protect them from the wind, but without holes for the wind to pass through, this could act as a sail and tear the whole scaffold to the ground. Regular materials such as plywood sheets or tarps could act as sails too, and carry somebody right off a building, roof, or other elevated work area if they are holding on or have the misfortune of being in the material’s path. Certain parts of your structure could become wind tunnels. Your best bet, if you have a building or campus where you regularly access roofs or if you’re going to be working on a long term construction project, would be to get your own weather station so you could have accurate readings that mean something to you and your workers.
Ice and Snow
Snow is easy. Most likely you are aware if it snows, even if some overnight snow caught you off-guard, it’s pretty visible. Ice, on the other hand, isn’t always so easy to spot. Pay close attention to your weather conditions as well as any leaks or areas where water tends to accumulate around your site. Controls being used to protect your workers, such as wetting of concrete while cutting it, could now be posing slip and fall hazards as the runoff freezes. Since salt doesn’t go so well with freshly poured concrete, make sure you have alternative de-icers so that you are able to give your employees a safe working/walking area. All of this is dangerous enough on the ground, but when you add heights to the mix you turn a simple (though still potentially harmful) trip and fall into a potential fatality. Consider the difference between an unexpected patch of ice on a sidewalk, versus an unexpected patch of ice on a roof edge or steel beam. Make sure you’re cleaning off ladders and scaffolding. Remember, nobody is allowed onto scaffolding, except the people tasked with cleaning it off, until all snow and ice is cleared.
A Combination of Snow and Wind
If a storm is moving in, visibility could drop to near-zero quickly. Snow is bad enough, but windy snow – well, you might as well stick your head in a snow bank and call it a day (Note: I do not recommend this). Don’t get caught off-guard. Keep an eye on weather reports so that you can reasonably predict snow events in the winter as you would thunderstorms in warmer weather. For workers on the ground, it might be easy to evacuate or take shelter, but this might not be the case for somebody who has to descend a scaffold, get off a lift, climb down from a tower crane, or come down from a roof. A communications tower climber certainly cannot just stop what he or she is doing and get out of harm’s way. It takes time. The more advanced notice you have the more chance your workers at heights will be able to make their way to safety.
While in your private life you may be one of those insane people that goes to a Green Bay Packers game at Lambeau Field in January wearing nothing but a pair of shorts and some body paint, but that’s not going to fly at work. See, it’s all fun and games until someone loses an extremity to frostbite. Frostbite – and hypothermia – are very real things that you need to be prepared for. Thankfully, body paint is not usually an acceptable work uniform. Dress appropriately for the weather, making sure to employ layers. Not only can you adjust the number of layers as the day goes on, but those gaps between layers help to add additional insulation from wind. If you’re going to be working on a roof covered in snow, make sure you’re wearing waterproof boots, gloves, or any other appropriate piece of waterproof protection your task requires. If your clothing gets soaked through, change into something dry as quickly as possible. Invest in some hand and foot warmers. The colder you get, the more blood-flow will be directed to your core to protect your important internal organs, leaving your fingers, toes, and other extremities in danger. Take breaks to warm up when you can and stay hydrated (that means, and this should go without saying on the job, no alcohol – but also, limit your caffeine intake). When cold illnesses start to take effect, many things can go wrong. You may be numb and unable to properly feel a rung you are reaching for, causing you to slip and fall, or a tool you are holding, causing it to fall on a worker below. You may feel weaker, you could feel disoriented and you could make bad decisions. Remember, these cold illnesses can be an issue at any height, but the conditions leading to them are going to be more extreme and get you there faster when you’re working at heights.
Also, when you begin to suffer these symptoms at heights, the ability to get you the help you need is compromised. Shelter from the wind, a place to get dry, warm running water, hot liquids to drink, and other things that may be integral to your recovery may not be readily available without completely descending the building or structure you are on – and that takes time. Valuable time. And, if your situation is bad enough, there’s a good chance EMTs aren’t going to be able to get to you, so you’re somehow going to have to get down to them. Do not allow your situation to get this far.
Fall Protection Equipment
Fall protection doesn’t end the moment you take your harness off and toss it on the ground. Right then and there, you’ve created a problem. Harnesses and lanyards should be stored in cool, dry places and, in the middle of a cold snap, your worksite will probably be anything BUT cool and dry. If you allow your equipment to be exposed to the elements, it could get wet, freeze, and thaw. Lather, rinse, repeat. This freeze-thaw cycle could cause your fall protection to become brittle or could cause it to rot. Either way, it certainly will not be saving your life. Make sure you are storing your equipment somewhere safe when it is not in use.
Your buddy falls off a building, but luckily is saved by his fall protection equipment. Great! Now, all you have to do is get the lift over to him to bring him down. But wait, what do you mean there’s three feet of snow on that side of the building that didn’t get cleared because nobody thought it was necessary? What do you mean the winds are way too high to safely operate a lift? Review your fall protection rescue plans and ensure you have options in place if the weather conditions do not allow you to follow your original plan. If rescue becomes infeasible, you will either need to develop another means or not work in that location until conditions improve to a point that allows for rescue to be possible. Don’t wait for this to become an issue before you check. Be proactive. Proactivity impresses people. It will make you popular at parties.
Many hazards you face at heights in cold weather are things you could encounter anywhere, but magnified. Take the time to review your site and adjust where necessary. Fall protection is tricky even when conditions are optimal, so don’t attempt to do it on the fly. Stay warm, work safe, and live to go home and enjoy a hot chocolate by the fire with your family (or a beer by the fire alone…whatever, as long as there’s a fire).