Winter is coming! Protect your workers from icy perils

By Rich Gaul, BWC Safety Technical Adviser

Winter is right around the corner. Are you and your employees ready for the harsh conditions of the season?

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 F. Frostbite is a condition where human tissue freezes. Frostbite most commonly affects the face, ears, fingers, and toes.

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, and drowsiness.

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: If someone is experiencing symptoms of hypothermia or frostbite, get the person to a warm, dry environment; remove any wet clothing; wrap them in dry warm blankets or towels; remove any jewelry or constrictive clothing that could restrict blood flow; submerge mild frostbite areas in lukewarm water (100-105 F); have them drink warm sweet liquids; monitor their condition closely and call for emergency medical attention if needed.

Prevention – employers should:

  • Train employees on symptoms and prevention measures for cold stress and frostbite, the importance of self-monitoring, and first aid procedures.
  • Provide engineering controls like wind chill shields, radiant heaters, and de-icing materials.
  • Consider protective clothing that provides warmth such as loose-fitting layers, a hat that covers the ears, mittens/gloves, thick wool socks, and waterproof boots.
  • Implement safe work practices such as:
    • Scheduling routine maintenance and repairs in summer months.
    • Limiting time outdoors and scheduling jobs in the warmer part of the day.
    • Monitoring weather conditions and avoiding exposure to extremely cold temperatures.
    • Providing warm liquids to drink and warming areas for use during breaks.
    • Acclimatizing employees gradually to cold environments.
    • Monitoring employees and providing them means of communication.

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’re exposed to cold conditions.

If you have questions on improving safety, reducing risk factors, or other occupational safety and health topics, BWC is here to help. Reach out to one of our BWC safety consultants online for assistance or call 1-800-644-6292. Don’t forget to take advantage of our other safety services as well. The Division of Safety and Hygiene offers a wide range of services for all industries at no additional cost to employers, including safety education and training and the BWC safety and video library.

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