How PPE Can Help You Deal with the Harsh Conditions of Winter

How PPE Can Help You Deal with the Harsh Conditions of Winter

Safety officers often talk about the importance of weather-specific PPE in summer, but proper PPE is just as important in the colder months.

PPE is used by workers, craftsman and consumers to protect themselves from injury and harm in certain working conditions. Though currently associated with face masks, PPE actually covers the gambit of safety equipment from gloves to hard hats to hi-vis clothing. Suppliers and safety officers often talk about the importance of weather-specific PPE in summer to avoid heat-related complications, but proper PPE is just as important in the colder months.

Winter Hazards

Illness. Cold and flu see an uptick in winter months. This can lead more workers to call out sick which can increase the load on others. It also means that employees may be working when not feeling their best which can lead to mistakes or misjudgment. Empowering employees to take care of and pay attention to their own limits can help them stay as healthy as possible.

Aside from the cold and flu, cooler temperatures can lead to chilblain, frostbite and hypothermia. Chilblains is the painful inflammation of small blood vessels because of repeated exposure to cold (but non-freezing temperatures). Frostbite is due to exposure to freezing temperatures and can lead to temporary or permanent damage to body tissue, including amputation. Hypothermia is when the body struggles to self-regulate warmth due to cold temperatures leading to impacted brain and organ function.

Another issue that can arise during cold weather is trench foot. This occurs when feet get wet and cold. Heat leaves the appendages more quickly and this can lead to constriction of blood vessels in the feet which can kill the tissue. Feet may turn red and splotchy or blue/grey because of trench foot.

Frozen Materials. Not only does the body get colder in winter, but so do materials. Touching cold/frozen metal and other construction materials can lead to frostbite and tears/cuts in the skin when workers attempt to remove themselves from the metal. Proper precaution should always be taken. Cold equipment can also be hazardous. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instruction when dealing with heavy machinery in cold weather. Electrical wires and other components can become brittle. Proper heating up of the machine can help avoid breakage and damage. You should also ensure that fluids used in the machines are rated for use in extreme temperatures. Cold weather can also lead to decreased tire pressure and make working with air compressors more complicated. Proceed with caution.

Reduced Daylight. Another major issue to contend with during winter is not weather specific, but it is time of year specific. In the northern hemisphere, winter means shorter days. The decrease in daylight can lead to more accidents for workers. Staying visible in work zones is crucial for worker safety.

Ice. Ice and slippery conditions are one of the biggest hazards workers face during winter. The Bureau of Labor estimates that falls, slips and trips accounted for 244,000 non-fatal and 880 fatal workplace injuries in 2019. Slips and falls can result in bruises, broken bones, head trauma and more. It is not just the ground you should be worried about. Any surface workers put their feet on should be checked for ice, including ladders, roofs and other elevated surfaces. Timely snow and ice removal is crucial for safety. Protection with PPE While all these risks and hazards can seem daunting, prevention can eliminate and reduce the chance of illness and injury due to cold. Proper use of PPE can help ensure workers are safe on the job and protected from the elements.

Workwear. Workwear is arguably the most important PPE for workers during the winter. Loose layers of clothing are crucial to regulating body temperature and staying warm. However, you want to ensure you are not covering up hi-vis t-shirts and other clothing with non-his-vis outerwear. That is where hi-vis jackets, sweatshirts, parkas and even winter bibs come in handy. This apparel provides warmth while also keeping workers visible to each other and motorists.

While black workwear does not have the same rating as hi-vis workwear, it does offer enhanced visibility thanks to hi-vis and reflective striping. In non-roadway settings, black hi-vis is a great winter option as the dark color absorbs and holds in more heat from the sun.

Along with jackets and parkas, hi-vis accessories can also add to overall warmth and visibility. Vests can be added atop hi-vis and non-hi-vis outwear for enhanced visibility. Knit or fleece caps and liners can be worn alone or under headgear for extra warmth. Reducing the amount of heat leaving through their head can help workers better regulate their internal temperature. Weather resistant clothing can also protect workers from getting wet due to precipitation and provide enhanced protection from wind.

Hand Protection. Gloves are another important category of PPE worn in winter. Insulated gloves provide workers extra protection from the elements. They can keep hands warm while still providing good grip in all conditions. Insulated nitrile dipped gloves offer contact cold protection and are water resistant which allows them to be worn in snowy and icy conditions.

Even gloves not specifically designed to be worn in winter, like leather drivers, can provide a barrier against cold metals, equipment, etc. and protect against frostbite. Suppliers are even offering gloves that allow for warmth and also touch sensitivity, for those who need access to devices without removing their hand protection.

Eyewear. As we have experienced during the pandemic, the more one covers up his/her face, the more likely he/she is to deal with fogging lenses. Eyewear with anti-fog coating can allow workers to wear balaclavas, hat liners and more without having to deal with obstructed vision. Sealed eyewear can also help with temperature regulation in extremely cold temperatures.

Footwear. When it comes to reducing the risk of falls, footwear is the best place to start. Insulated and water-resistant work boots or over-shoes that offer high amounts of traction will help workers maintain their balance on slippery surfaces. Boots that keep water from reaching the sock and foot will go a long way to prevent trench foot and hypothermia. Those working outside or in the elements should have shoes with non-slip soles. Not only will this reduce their risk of falling, but it will also reduce the likelihood that their feet will slip while driving or operating heavy machinery.

Hearing Protection. While hearing protection is not specifically needed in winter weather, earmuffs can provide extra warmth to workers’ ears. Like your hands and feet, ears are one of the most common places frost bite can occur. If workers are not wearing caps or hard hat liners, earmuffs are a great alternative that is likely already part of a jobsite’s PPE.

Warm Weather Work Tips

Protecting workers from the hazards of cold weather is important for employee retention and a company’s bottom line. To keep your team safe, here are some easy steps you can take to reduce cold weather-related illness and injury.

  1. Stay abreast of weather forecast.
  2. Require proper PPE for current conditions.
  3. Regularly inspect the jobsite for hazards or slippery conditions.
  4. Encourage workers to stay hydrated and take breaks as needed.
  5. Provide a warm, dry space for breaks.
  6. Know the signs of cold stress like frostbite and hypothermia.
  7. Have emergency kits on hand. Inspect and warm up equipment in accordance with manufacturer guidelines.
  8. No matter what winter conditions workers face, proper PPE can make a big difference in reducing their risk of illness and injury. 

From hi-vis workwear to gloves to eyewear, outfitting workers with proper protection will keep them safe and your job site running smoothly. The key to dealing with winter hazards is preparation and the right PPE is one crucial step towards that goal. As with all PPE needs, suppliers can help you decide what products will be the most beneficial for your workers. Winter is creeping in, so contact yours today!

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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