By Rich Gaul, BWC Safety Technical Adviser
Taking some simple steps can help protect your employees from ailments caused by exposure to low temperatures, wind and moisture.
The two primary health risks in cold weather are hypothermia and frostbite. Hypothermia occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can replace it, causing your core body temperature to drop below 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius). Frostbite is a condition where human tissue freezes. Frostbite most commonly affects the face, ears, fingers and toes. It is important to recognize the early warning signs of hypothermia and frostbite and take necessary precautions to prevent them.
Early warning signs of hypothermia include feeling extremely cold; shivering; cold or numb fingertips or toes; impaired fine-motor control; slurred speech; confusion or disorientation; drowsiness. You should train employees to recognize these early warning signs and how to take the necessary precautions to prevent hypothermia.
Treatment for hypothermia includes getting the person indoors or to other warm shelter; removing wet or damp clothing; wrapping them in warm dry blankets; getting them to drink warm, sweet liquids; monitoring their condition closely and calling for emergency medical attention if needed.
Early warning signs of frostbite include skin that appears slightly swollen, waxy looking and feels cold or numb. More severe frostbite affects deeper layers of tissue. Skin may become completely numb and blister. Deep tissue, including muscle, blood vessels and bone may freeze and turn black.
Treatment for frostbite includes getting the victim indoors or to other warm shelter; removing any wet or damp clothing; removing jewelry or constrictive clothing that could restrict blood flow; gently and slowly warming the superficial frostbite by covering affected areas with warm dry towels or submerging in lukewarm water (100 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit); seeking immediate medical attention for moderate to severe frostbite.
Prevention – employers should:
- Train employees;
- Provide engineering controls;
- Implement safe work practices;
- Consider protective clothing that provides warmth.
Training – at a minimum employers should train workers on:
- Recognizing the symptoms of cold stress and frostbite and prevention measures;
- The importance of self-monitoring and monitoring coworkers for symptoms;
- First-aid procedures and how to call for medical assistance in an emergency;
- How to select and wear proper clothing for cold, wet and windy conditions.
Engineering controls – employers should:
- Provide shields around outdoor work areas to reduce wind chill;
- Add radiant heaters if feasible;
- Apply de-icing materials to prevent slips and falls.
Safe work practices
- Schedule routine maintenance and repairs during warmer months.
- Schedule cold-weather jobs in the warmer part of the day.
- Monitor weather conditions and avoid exposure to extremely cold temperatures.
- Limit the amount of time outdoors in cold weather.
- Provide warming areas for use during breaks.
- Provide warm liquids to drink.
- Acclimatize employees gradually to allow them to build up tolerance to cold environments.
- Monitor employees and provide means of communication.
Although there is no Occupational Safety and Health requirement for employers to provide workers with ordinary clothing or other items solely for protection from cold weather, many employers provide workers with winter weather gear such as winter coats, hats, gloves, etc. Regardless of whether the employer or the employee provides protective clothing, employers should encourage employees to wear proper clothing for cold-weather conditions. This includes wearing:
- Several layers of loose fitting clothing, allowing workers to add or remove layers as needed;
- A hat that covers your ears;
- Mittens or gloves;
- Thick wool socks and waterproof boots to keep your feet warm and dry.
When performing outdoor work activities:
- Warm up and stretch before any strenuous physical exercise, including snow shoveling;
- Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated;
- Protect your back by using good lifting techniques;
- Pace yourself to avoid sweating;
- Adjust your clothing layers according to your physical activity;
- Take frequent breaks and go indoors to warm up;
- Move slowly and carefully to avoid slipping on icy pavement.
Working in cold winter weather conditions or indoor cold environments may be unavoidable, but following the practices outlined above will help keep employees safe when they are exposed to cold conditions.