Winterizing Employees Who Work Outdoors
Introducing cold weather work tips and other outdoor cold weather safety concepts in trainings during the early fall can help workers get into the mindset.
- By Karen D. Hamel
- Sep 01, 2018
Preparing employees to work in harsh winter weather conditions takes more than a reminder on the bulletin board to wear their hats and gloves. Acclimating workers to cold climates needs to begin before the temperature drops, and it requires more than just adding additional clothing.
In addition to adding layers of clothing, staying warm during outdoor work also involves having the proper mindset, nutrition, and stamina to prevent hypothermia, frostbite, and other cold-related injuries. Preparing mentally as well as physically helps employees to recognize the warning signs and effects of cold stress and their limitations.
Psychological and Behavioral Needs
Every person perceives and tolerates temperature differently. Although two people may have the same core temperatures, one may say that he feels cold while the other may say that she is comfortable.
Because of individual differences in the way that people approach working in cold environments, acclimation will occur at different paces. This is because each person needs to adjust to their environmental stimuli and process it in their own time and in their own way.
Differences also may be regional. An employee who has lived in cold weather climates for several years is likely to acclimate faster than one who has never experienced extreme cold.
Introducing cold weather work tips and other outdoor cold weather safety concepts in trainings during the early fall can help workers get into the mindset. It can also be helpful to review work practices, such as the use of the buddy system.
Using the buddy system when working in cold conditions is essential because hypothermia, frostbite, and other cold related injuries affect people differently. Teaching everyone to recognize signs of confusion, slurred speech, and shivering in themselves and others can help prevent injuries.
Age, body type, and health issues also influence a person's susceptibility to cold. As people age, they are sometimes less likely to notice when they are becoming cold. Their reactions may be slower or they may even begin to shiver without fully realizing the need to stop work and warm themselves.
A person who is tall, thin, and has long limbs will cool more quickly than someone who is shorter and stouter. This is especially true in windy conditions.
Health conditions such as anemia, hypothyroidism, and some forms of cancer can influence a person's tolerance for cold weather. These conditions may even prevent them from staying outdoors for short amounts of time.
Recognizing individual differences and abilities is important because not everyone will be able to tolerate cold working conditions the same way. This may mean that some people also may not be able to work as long as others do in cold weather, while others may be able to work longer without adversely affecting them.
When a person feels cold, one of the ways the body responds is by making them feel hungry, because food provides fuel. Staying properly fed and hydrated can help workers better withstand cold working conditions and fatigue.
What to eat and when to eat it are important considerations. Diets that are high in protein combined with fats and carbohydrates will help to balance nutritional needs with the demands of working outdoors in the cold. Eating six to eight small snacks throughout the day helps the body to convert food calories to heat over the course of the day is better than eating one or two heavy meals.
Dehydration causes fatigue in all types of weather conditions. Most adults need at least four liters of water a day to avoid the symptoms of dehydration. Working hard and in extreme temperatures increases this need.
Workers need to remain warm when they are working outdoors but should not wear so much clothing that they sweat, because sweating is a defense mechanism that cools the body. When a person sweats in cold conditions, it can cause cooling that is too rapid, leading to hypothermia. Dressing in layers allows the worker to add or remove layers to maintain warmth without sweating.
Layers should include a wicking layer closest to the body to remove moisture from the skin. A thin insulting layer over this, followed by a heavier insulating layer, will help trap and maintain body heat. Durable wind and waterproof layers over this help to further insulate workers.
If employees will experience wet conditions, consider fabrics such as wool, fleece, and polypropylene that remain warm when they are wet. Cotton fabrics will draw heat away from the body, and goose down loses its insulting properties when it is wet.
Layering also applies to clothing worn on the extremities. Layer socks with a wicking layer closest to the foot followed by a warmer sock over it. Like other clothing, socks should be loose fitting.
When the type of work permits it, choose mittens over gloves. Mittens keep fingers warmer than gloves. If the work requires finer dexterity, consider thin gloves under mittens. The gloves will provide some protection while performing fine work and allow the hands to slip quickly back into the warmer mittens when it is completed.
Winter hats, toques, and balaclavas (ski masks) are essential to help to prevent frostbite and hypothermia. Many styles even fit well when wearing hard hats and other personal protective equipment.
Using OSHA and ACGIH Guidelines
No matter what their age is, how many layers they are wearing, or how long they have been acclimated to outdoor conditions, all workers are susceptible to hypothermia and needs to recognize when they are becoming cold and when they need to stop work to get warm.
In addition to clothing, workers should have the right tools and supplies to minimize the amount of time spent outdoors. Before winter weather hits, service all equipment and stock salt, shovels, and other supplies, because it can be more difficult to repair or obtain these items once the weather turns bad.
OSHA, the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH), and others agree that the colder the temperature and wind chill, the less time a person can withstand the cold. Using their guidelines can allow work to be broken down into small tasks that fit within the recommended time limitations to prevent cold injuries.
When workers do get chilled, having warm blankets, warming shelters, and warm liquids readily available can help reverse mild hypothermia and prevent more severe injuries. Taking the time now to prepare workers mentally as well as physically will help them to recognize cold warning signs and be better able to work safely outdoors.
This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.