The Dangers of Working in Cold Weather and Ways to Stay Safe
It's that time of year again, when many parts of the country devolve into a frozen, bone-chilling wasteland that sends many of us scrambling to our warm fireplaces, layers of fleece, and mugs of hot (sometimes spiked) beverages. Even parts of the country not usually known for their cold weather have seen the mercury drop and have felt the biting gusts of winter wind. Unfortunately, many of us have no choice but to be out there in the elements making a living. It's important that you take all of the necessary precautions to stay warm to avoid cold-weather related illnesses like hypothermia and frostbite. You should also be aware of the other safety hazards the cold weather brings. Here are some things you can do to ensure a safe, healthy winter:
Ensure You are Wearing the Proper Clothing
Wear layers of clothing that can be removed or added as temperatures change, with the outermost being waterproof. Wind, precipitation, and the appearance or disappearance of the sun can cause drastic changes in how warm or cold you feel. These layers will help to wick moisture away from the skin and provide a barrier to the wind. Don't forget to keep a dry change of clothes in your car or in the change room. Should you get wet, having something to change into could save you a world of problems.
Waterproof boots and gloves will help keep your extremities dry and warm. Your extremities (fingers, toes, tip of nose, ears, etc.) are more susceptible to frostbite than other parts of your body. When the body temperature begins dropping, blood flow around your core will increase to protect your vital organs while your extremities pay the price. Don't hesitate to buy hand and foot warmers.
Wear insulation under your hardhat, but make sure it is acceptable. Head protection that is too bulky, is shaped funny, or slides easily off your head could all have an effect on how well your hardhat protects you. Don't create one hazard in an attempt to fix another.
When the weather is extremely hot, we take more frequent breaks to get out of the sun. The same should apply to extremely cold weather. Take breaks often to warm up and go someplace warm and dry. If possible, schedule your outdoor work during the warmest parts of the day. Be aware of the symptoms of frostbite (Learn more about identifying the symptoms of frostbite here) and hypothermia in case they start to show before you're due to take a break. Supervisors and owners: remember that a few extra minutes of break time is far less costly than when your employee has to go to the hospital.
Eat and Drink Properly
It seems like common sense, but we all know common sense is subjective, so we'll say it here anyways: eat warm food and drink warm drinks. This will help you stay warmer throughout the day. Soup, chili, hot meals – anything you can get your hands on. As for drinks, well, let's address two major ones: alcohol and coffee. It should go without saying that alcohol should not be consumed at work regardless, but let's pretend you're reading this blog prior to a big ice-fishing trip. Alcohol, contrary to popular belief, does NOT make you warmer. Maybe it makes you feel a little warmer, or maybe it makes you not notice the cold so much, but it does not raise your body temperature. In fact, alcohol causes you to become colder quicker. As for coffee, drink it in moderation. Coffee actually reduces blood flow to your extremities making them more susceptible to frostbite.
Ensure that personnel working in extreme cold conditions are trained in the symptoms of frostbite and hypothermia so that problems can be addressed before they become major problems. Make sure at least one person on the crew is trained in First Aid / CPR so they can help your employees survive in an emergency event.
Snow, Ice, and Other Hazards
Many people go to the hospital each year as a result of snow removal. Whether it causes bad backs or heart attacks, snow shoveling injures many people because it causes them to overexert themselves. Make sure you take it easy while shoveling and use an ergonomically shaped shovel if possible. Pace yourself, don't try to lift too much at once, push the snow instead of lifting when you can, or, better yet, get yourself a snow-blower (or a generous neighbor who can't help but snow blow every driveway in sight).
Speaking of snow blowers, they bring with them some inherent dangers. Warming them up in your garage or shed could lead to carbon monoxide poisoning (just as gas-powered portable heaters can in enclosed areas on job sites). Make sure you run them outside only (or, in the case of a portable heater on a site, monitor the area for CO levels). If you use an electric snow blower, make sure it is plugged into a GFCI outlet. If the snow blower gets jammed, shut it down and/or unplug it before trying to clear the jam. Use a broom stick or the tool that many snow blowers come with to clear it out rather than sticking your hands in the blades.
Remember to remove ice from walkways, parking lots and working surfaces on the job (and at home). Make sure you are using environmentally friendly products which also won't affect your work (as salt can damage concrete. See here). If it is necessary to walk on an icy patch (for instance, if your parking area at the job site wasn't cleared), walk slowly with small steps, keep your feet flat on the ground and your arms at your side for balance, and watch where you're going. Exit the ice as soon as possible. If you are exiting your car or other vehicle / equipment onto ice, get out of the car by planting BOTH feet on the ground. Attempting to get out one foot at the time could lead you to slip and fall. Remember, it's often not just your pride that's hurt when you fall: broken bones, head wounds, and "wrenched" backs (among other things) are all possibilities.
And, for goodness' sake, clear your windshield before driving. If you have to be on the roads, you have to be able to see and be seen (not to mention that "peephole driving" – where you scrape a small hole in the ice and drive while peering through that – is illegal in many states). Clear your windshield and windows, scrape all snow off your car – especially the roof, and make sure your headlights work (so others can see you!). Drive slowly and keep your distance if the roads are bad.
There are many, many ways to get yourself injured in cold weather. Take precautions both on the job and off. Look out for your co-workers as well as yourself, and remember, especially when taking to the roads, that not everybody is as cautious as you are. Don't expose yourself to other people's mistakes. Stay safe and stay warm!