Cold and Windy Needs Appropriate PPE—Especially Hand Protection

Cold and Windy Needs Appropriate PPE—Especially Hand Protection

Hand protection for workers during chilly and windy environments should not be a second thought, as cold stress can lead to several hazardous conditions.

Keeping warm is a basic need that all of us share. For those who work in cold temperatures, the need to keep your hands warm and protected is a major concern. If ignored, this concern can turn into serious health risks like frostbite and hypothermia.

People who work outdoors, such as utility workers, snow cleanup crews, construction workers, police officers, firefighters, baggage handlers and airplane mechanics are examples of workers who are often exposed to cold stress. Those who work in walk-in freezers at food processing plants are also at risk.

OSHA says, “Outdoor workers exposed to cold and windy conditions are at risk of cold stress; both air temperature and wind speed affect how cold they feel. As wind speed increases, it causes the cold air temperature to feel even colder, increasing the risk of cold stress to exposed workers.”

Risk factors for cold stress include:

  • Wetness/dampness, dressing improperly, and exhaustion
  • Predisposing health conditions such as hypertension, hypothyroidism, and diabetes
  • Poor physical conditioning
  • Wind chill

It’s easy to see how below freezing conditions and inadequate PPE can cause cold stress, but cold stress can also occur at temperatures in the 50s when coupled with rain and/or wind. It is very important to be aware of wind chill in any cold prevention program. If safety pros don’t factor in wind chill, your cold stress strategy will miss the mark and workers’ health could be seriously compromised.

Wind Chill Resources for Safety Professionals

According to OSHA, “Wind Chill is the term used to describe the rate of heat loss from the human body resulting from the combined effect of low air temperature and wind speed. The Wind Chill Temperature is a single value that takes both air temperature and wind speed into account. For example, when the air temperature is 40 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind speed is 35 mph, the wind chill temperature is 28 degrees Fahrenheit; this measurement is the actual effect of the environmental cold on the exposed skin.”

National Weather Service for Continuous Weather Information

Since wind chill plays a significant role in managing cold stress, here are two resources to help you determine weather and wind chill:

1. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio is a nationwide network of radio stations broadcasting continuous weather information from the nearest National Weather Service office.

2. National Weather Radio (NWR) broadcasts official Weather Service warnings, watches, forecasts and other hazard information 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It also provides information when wind chill conditions reach critical thresholds. A Wind Chill Advisory is issued when wind chill temperatures are potentially hazardous, and a Wind Chill Warning is issued when wind chill temperatures are life threatening.

The NWS website has a box in the upper left corner where you can put the city or ZIP code to get your local weather. It will give you the temperature and wind speed along with other information.

Once you have the temperature and wind speed, you can calculate the wind chill with the NWS online calculator.

Plus, the NWS also has a handy Wind Chill Chart with the wind speed, temperature and corresponding wind chill. For example, if the wind speed is 15 mph and the temperature is 30 degrees, the wind chill is 19 degrees.

PPE as a Preventative Measure

According to OSHA, “Protective clothing is recommended for work at or below 4 degrees Celsius or below 39.2 degrees Fahrenheit.” An extra benefit of providing appropriate winter gear is that it helps improve performance and productivity.

Wearing the proper PPE is one of the primary preventative measures to protect workers in cold environments. Parkas with removable fleece linings, balaclavas that shape shift from a full-face mask to a neck gaiter and battery-powered heated jackets are at the top of the winter PPE checklist because their multi-functional designs allow workers to control their comfort based on changing weather conditions and activity levels.

But winter work gloves, which are critical to performing tasks, play a critical role in preventing cold stress, including frostbite and hypothermia.

Frostbite, one of the most common injuries from cold exposure, can cause permanent damage to hands or fingers, including amputation.

Hypothermia, which means “low heat,” occurs when body heat is lost faster than it can be replaced, and the body temperature drops to below 95 degrees. Shivering is a symptom, followed by more serious symptoms of memory loss, slurred speech and even death if body temperature drops to 78 degrees.

Powerful Tools for Your Cold Stress Toolbox

One of the best types of hand protection, especially in sub-zero temperatures, are mittens. Mittens tend to be warmer than gloves because your fingers generate more heat when they’re not separated by fabric, as is the case with gloves. Unfortunately, mittens can be heavy-handed and clumsy, compromising dexterity, which is a must-have requirement for most workers. Thus, mittens aren’t typically a practical safety solution for most industrial workers, but they are often worn in pleasure pursuits like skiing, snowboarding or hiking in frigid temperatures.

When specifying a winter glove for your safety program, make sure it has:

  • A water-repellant outer coating or material that provides water resistance and wind repellence
  • An insulating liner that traps air for warmth and offers moisture-wicking capabilities
  • Features that promote comfort and a good fit

Outer Coatings to Resist Water

It is important to understand the differences among water-resistant gloves, water-repellant gloves and waterproof gloves. This is especially important in winter months, when exposure to sleet, rain and snow can make for a miserable workday if not properly protected.

Both “water-resistant” and “waterproof” designate the degree to which rain is blocked from penetrating the glove. Water-repellant refers to the extra surface coating that improves any glove’s performance, including waterproof gloves.

Water-resistant gloves resist the penetration of water but not entirely. This is considered the lowest level of water protection. While a water-resistant glove won’t keep your hands from getting wet forever, it takes longer for water to seep in. Water-resistance is a natural quality of the glove fabric itself. The most common fabrics that can be called water resistant are nylon and polyester, and their water resistance can be credited to how tightly they are woven.

The next step up is water-repellant gloves. They are not easily penetrated by water because of their specially treated surface coating that repels water. However, coatings and treatments wear off over time becoming less effective.

A waterproof glove is impervious to water, acting as a waterproof barrier to keep rain, sleet and snow from penetrating the glove. It offers the highest level of protection from water.

Comfort and Good Fit Improve Compliance

Your winter glove should fit your hand properly as tight gloves can compromise circulation and increase sweating, which makes your hands colder, not to mention uncomfortable.

Poorly fitted gloves reduce dexterity and grip strength. Gloves that are too loose can get caught in machinery and are just as uncomfortable as gloves that are too tight. Make sure the winter glove you choose for your safety program is comfortable and is offered in a variety of sizes to fit workers’ hands.

Your winter glove should also have a good cuff that can fit over your jacket sleeve. An extended gauntlet cuff with hook and loop closure offers additional protection to keep snow from seeping into your glove.

Different Types of Winter Gloves for Workers

The marketplace has a wide selection of winter work gloves to meet a variety of jobsite applications. In addition to helping you combat the cold in mild and extreme conditions, winter work gloves often serve other protective functions, including:

  • High visibility protection
  • Cut protection
  • Impact protection
  • Abrasion protection
  • Waterproof insulated protection
  • Extreme condition insulated protection
  • Gripping capabilities in wet and dry applications

Working in extremely low temperatures without high-quality cold weather gloves carries the danger of temporary or permanent damage to hands and fingers. There’s also a risk that the ability to operate equipment or complete detailed tasks may be impaired due to improper insulation.

Make sure your hand protection inventory is equipped with the right winter glove to protect workers’ hands and fingers from frostbite, cuts, abrasions and punctures. In harsh conditions, remember to always work in teams and look after each other.

Need Help Choosing a Winter Glove?

Choosing the right winter glove can be a complex decision dependent upon standards, materials, technologies, budget and job applications. But you don’t have to go down that road alone. Most glove manufacturers have experienced safety specialists who can help you choose the right winter work glove for your cold prevention program. Many offer complimentary hand protection assessments, fast facts, white papers and free samples to qualifying customers.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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