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Top Winter Hazards on Construction Sites & How to Avoid Them
Of all of the industries covered under OSHA, the construction industry continues to be one of the most hazardous a worker can find themselves in. Every day hazards include slips, trips and falls, struck-by incidents, injuries to the hands, feet and head as well as the numerous obstacles a worker must face depending on the weather.
It is no secret that workers must combat inclement weather types of all kinds, including the extremes of the summer and winter. In the summer, temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit can present hazards that result in serious illnesses including heat stress, heat exhaustion and heat stroke—a serious illness that could be fatal.
While we have covered heat-related illnesses ad nauseum in this publication, it is about time that we focus in on the hazards that can be present on construction sites due to the wintery mix of weather that sites may see between the months of December, January and February.
In this article, we will explore some of the hazards that are present in the coldest months of the year and what safety professionals can do to prevent and avoid them at their facilities and on their jobsites.
Cold-related Illnesses & Injuries
Exposure to cold can range from discomfort to a potentially dangerous situation that can result in serious injury or even death. Professionals that work in cold environments risk exposure to extreme temperatures that could cause serious injuries such as chilblains, trench foot, frostbite and hypothermia.
Chilblains. Skin repeatedly exposed to cold but nonfreezing temperatures could be at risk of chilblains—which is the painful inflammation of small blood vessels. These small blood vessels may become permanently damaged by the cold, resulting in redness and itching during additional exposures.
Trench foot. Feet that are not properly protected from wet, cold conditions could suffer from a cold-related injury called trench foot. Trench foot occurs because cold feet lose heat faster than dry feet, meaning they are unable to keep warm. The body then tries to prevent more heat loss, leading the blood vessels in your feet to become constricted and the skin tissue begins to die. Symptoms of trench foot include gangrene, which is usually identified by a purple, blue or grey color of the foot.
Frostbite. When the skin and deeper tissues are exposed to freezing temperatures, frostbite may occur resulting in the loss of feeling and color in the affected area. Frostbite can permanently damage body tissues, and in severe cases—lead to amputation. If frostbite is to occur, avoid rubbing or putting pressure on these areas, as this can further damage to tissues.
Hypothermia. When the body is exposed to cold temperatures, it becomes hard for it to self-regulate warmth. It begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced. Prolonged exposure to cold can cause the internal body temperature to drop, which can lead to a condition called hypothermia. Hypothermia can impact brain function, which is especially dangerous as a person may not be able to recognize the symptoms until it is too late.
If a worker does contract hypothermia, immediately call emergency medical services. Remove any wet clothing and cover the body with loose, dry blankets, clothing or towels. Provide warm, non-alcoholic beverages if the worker is conscious and if the worker should lose a pulse, CPR should be administered.
Slips, Trips & Falls
While slips, trips and falls can be a major hazard in any industry at any time of year, the winter weather makes this hazard particularly hard to avoid as workers battle the slick conditions of ice and snow. Slips, trips and falls can result in bruises, abrasions, broken limbs, cracked ribs, serious back injuries and even trauma to the head, so it is important to do everything you can to prevent this hazard on your worksite.
While slips, trips and falls do account for 27 percent of all workplace injuries, they are preventable. There are many things employers can do—especially during the winter—to ensure that workers’ feet stay solid on the ground and fall injuries stay nonexistent.
First, employers should be sure to assess working areas for slick spots that can result from ice or snow. If in an indoor facility, be sure to monitor areas where employees come in from outside. Ice and snow can melt in entry ways as it is brought in via workers’ shoes creating hazardous wet patches. It is not enough to conduct one inspection each season, however. Safety professionals should regularly take note of working conditions to mitigate all slip, trip and fall hazards.
Employers should ensure that all workers are given the proper equipment to handle the weather conditions of any season. Safety equipment for the winter can include, but is not limited to, non-slip winter boots that help to ensure workers protect themselves from possible slip hazards. It is also important to ensure that workers are training on how to dress for each season appropriately.
Speaking of training, employees should be trained to take short steps and slowly walk on icy or snow-covered surfaces. This change in gait will help if the worker suddenly finds themselves without traction on a slick surface, lessening the types of injuries they will suffer should they fall.
Winter Weather Driving
According to the Federal Highway Administration, on average there at 5,891,000 vehicle crashes each year. Approximately 21 percent of the crashes, or more than 1.2 million, are weather-related. Of those weather-related accidents, 18 percent happen during snow or sleet, 13 percent on icy pavement and 16 percent of weather-related crashes take place on snowy or slushy pavement.
It is important for those who work on construction sites to understand how extreme winter weather conditions can impact the roadways, as muddy roads under construction sites can make for even more hazardous areas.
To prevent winter driving accidents, construction site employers should ensure that those who are assigned to vehicles and transport duties receive additional training on winter driving methods and the hazards that can be present on snowy, icy or slushy roads. Vehicles must also be inspected regularly to ensure they are in proper working order to be on winter roads.
If construction workers are working on roadways, ensure that work zones have traffic controls clearly identified by signs, cones, barrels and barriers. These can be erected to help guide drivers and ultimately protect workers.
Preparation is Prevention
In the end, preparing for wintery weather and extreme cold will help any employer in any industry ward off cold-related hazards on the jobsite, ensure that workers know and understand how the cold can impact their bodies, the ground beneath them and the normal conditions in which they work.
This article originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.
Sydny Shepard is the former editor of Occupational Health & Safety.