We are currently in the middle of winter, so there is no better time than now to discuss some strategies for working in cold weather. Obviously, lower temperatures require special consideration if you work outdoors. However, it may be difficult to plan for exactly how to protect your body. In the winter, construction workers face the risks of hypothermia, frostbite, decreased mobility, and impaired sensory awareness. Additionally, snow and ice increase the risk of falls and struck by/caught between accidents. Depending on the temperature and kind of work you are performing, there are many things that you can do to stay safe and protected on the job.
What to Wear
Let’s begin by looking at the best clothing for cold weather. The best fabrics for winter are polyester fleece and wool. Polypropylene, the fabric found in synthetic long underwear, is also good for insulation. Goose down is an excellent insulator if you work in a dry climate, but it should be avoided if you work in rain and snow. Goose down loses its capacity to insulate when it becomes wet. Similarly, cotton should be avoided in the winter. If cotton becomes wet through sweat, snow, or rain, it will pull heat away from your body.
In the winter, it is best to wear multiple layers rather than one heavy layer. In this way, you can adapt your clothing if the weather changes or if you overheat due to physical exertion. Additionally, layering is the most physically-effective system for insulation. Warm air becomes trapped between each layer of fabric, thus adding to your overall protection from the cold.
When planning your layers, arrange them in the following order:
1.Wicking Layer: This is the layer that sits directly on top of your skin. This layer should wick the sweat from your skin and transfer it to the next layer. Otherwise, sweat remains on your skin and lowers your body temperature. For this layer, we recommend synthetic (polypropylene) long underwear.
2.Light Insulating Layer: This goes on after the wicking layer. When we layer our clothing, we always do so with the thinnest layer closest to the skin and the thickest layer on top. Light fleece and thin wool are ideal fabrics for this layer.
3.Heavy Insulating Layer: For this layer, use a heavier fleece or thick wool sweater to surround your body with warmth.
4.Weatherproof Layer: This final layer should be durable, wind-resistant, and waterproof, especially if you work in a climate with severe winter storms.
In the winter, it is also critical to protect your head, hands, and feet. Wear a thin wool cap or liner under your hard hat. Wear gloves or mittens, especially when the temperature is below 4°C (40°F). If you have leather or similar, permeable boots, you should weatherproof them with a wax or spray. You can also prepare your boots by purchasing removable felt insoles – these provide extra cushioning and warmth. You should wear two layers of socks in winter. Wear a thin sock directly on your foot and a thicker second sock (preferably wool) to trap the most heat.
What to Eat and Drink
When you are working in the winter, it is best to eat foods that are warm and high in calories. Eat foods with plenty of fat and carbohydrates. If you are working in cold weather, your body needs additional fuel to maintain itself.
Aside from your regular meals, be sure to eat frequent, protein-rich snacks. Protein bars, granola bars, or mixed nuts are ideal.
Avoid alcohol and caffeine. Often, workers choose to drink coffee during their breaks because it is warm and provides a quick burst of energy. However, caffeine raises your heart rate and gives the illusion of warmth. This is dangerous because it inhibits your ability to gauge how cold your body is. It is best to stick to water as a beverage when working in cold weather – this will keep you hydrated and it won’t alter your perceptions.
How to Work
If you are a supervisor or manager of a construction company, consider scheduling the most physically-taxing tasks for the warmest parts of the day. If possible, avoid scheduling shifts at night. Without the warmth and light of the day, the low temperatures and decreased visibility make for especially dangerous conditions. Additionally, if you are a supervisor, talk with your employees about cold weather to make sure they know how to protect themselves.
Work on tasks in groups of two or more. This establishes a buddy system where workers can monitor the condition of one another (i.e. check for fatigue, frostbite, and hypothermia).
At the start of each shift, clear the work site of ice and snow. Lay salt or other chemicals to prevent buildup as you work. Perform all other necessary actions to ensure that the construction zone is as safe as possible.
You should also prepare for the cold by making sure every vehicle and article of heavy equipment (cranes, rollers, etc.) is equipped with an emergency kit. This kit should include a flashlight, ice scraper, shovel, tow chain, flares, protein-rich snacks, water, hydration salts, blankets, hand warmers, and batteries. Additionally, if workers are not permitted to carry their cell phones at work, make sure every vehicle contains a means of communication (whether this be a radio, walkie talkie, or emergency phone).
Workers taking medication, in poor physical condition, or suffering from chronic illnesses/conditions (such as diabetes or high blood pressure) should notify their supervisor before working in cold conditions. Additionally, any employee who is experiencing alarming physical symptoms while working in the cold should immediately tell his/her supervisor and seek shelter in a warm, dry place.
Symptoms of Hypothermia
So far in this article, we have listed hypothermia as a potential side effect of working in cold weather. Now, let’s look at the symptoms of hypothermia so you know what to look for in yourself and your coworkers.
Symptoms of Early Stage Hypothermia:
-Loss of coordination
-Confusion and disorientation (i.e. slurred speech or impaired memory)
Symptoms of Late Stage Hypothermia:
-Slowed pulse and breathing
-Loss of consciousness
Remember, hypothermia is a serious condition. If it isn’t caught in the early stages, it can become a medical emergency. If you remotely suspect that one of your coworkers is suffering from hypothermia, immediately report to your supervisor and direct the coworker to a warm, indoor shelter.
By dressing properly, eating right, and preparing your worksite, you can ensure the safety of you and your coworkers in the winter months. And remember – there is no job that is worth risking your life. If the conditions outside are too bad, or if you observe symptoms of hypothermia in yourself or others, take a break. The winter won’t last forever, but falling on ice, getting frostbite, or reaching late-stage hypothermia can have irreparable consequences on your life.
Author: Jennifer Lawson has been an Expert Analyst and Consultant with First Compliance Safety, LLC. for nearly five years. She is passionate about small company growth, data analysis, and safe working practices. She formerly served as a safety director within the oil and gas industry, and she draws upon this experience to assist her clients in achieving compliance.