Hypothermia and Nine More Winter Workplace Hazards

Hypothermia and Nine More Winter Workplace Hazards

A hot summer can make winter seem less dangerous, but don’t be fooled.

After a summer with record-breaking heatwaves in many parts of the country, it can be tempting to relax and view the upcoming winter temperatures as a welcome relief. But winter brings its own challenges. Preparing now for snow, ice and sub-zero weather can help everyone to safely endure this winter’s chill. 

Reviewing each of the jobs and tasks that will need to be performed outdoors during winter months and identifying the safety hazards associated with performing those duties are the first steps in creating a cold weather safety plan to minimize the risk of incidents. 

Hypothermia and Frostbite 

Hypothermia and frostbite are the most common types of cold stress injuries. They can occur at above freezing temperatures (40 degrees Fahrenheit,) with winds as low as five miles per hour. Injuries can happen even faster if employees are wearing wet clothing.  

Staying safe doesn’t mean that all outdoor activities need to cease until spring. But, even workers who have had time to acclimate to working in cold conditions will still need modified work schedules, warming areas, appropriate outerwear and training to be able to recognize the first signs of cold exposure. 

Reviewing data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Wind Chill Chart is a good starting point for planning outdoor work schedules. It uses the air temperature and wind speed to calculate how long an average adult can be outdoors before frostbite begins to set in.  

The American College of Industrial Hygienists has also established cold stress Threshold Limit Values for people performing moderate and heavy workloads outdoors in low temperatures. Like NOAA’s recommendations, they factor in both air temperature and wind speed. However, workload is also considered as well as guidelines for working and warming cycles.  

Slips and Falls 

It’s not a coincidence that slip, trip and fall incidents are more prevalent in winter months. Snow and ice make walking surfaces slippery, and they can often mask obstacles like parking curbs, cracks and uneven pavement.  

Although you can’t plan for snow or ice to happen on a particular day or at a particular time, being well prepared for inclement weather before it happens helps maintenance crews to tackle whatever Mother Nature sends their way.  

Planning should begin in late summer or early autumn. Verify that there are an adequate number of shovels, and stock up on ice melt, rock salt, sand or anti-slip materials. Don’t wait until winter to stock up on these items because they are often in short supply as soon as the first snow arrives. Service salt spreaders, plowing equipment, snow blowers and any other equipment that will be needed so that everything is in good working condition.  

Establish work schedules and seek any necessary approvals to modify those schedules as needed to ensure that snow and ice will be removed from parking lots and sidewalks at least half an hour before employees arrive and leave each day. If plowing and shoveling are outsourced, specify the times when lots and sidewalks need to be cleared in contracts.  

Use morning safety briefings or toolbox talk times to remind everyone of the hazards of winter walking. Reminders to take short steps, walk at a slower pace and wear appropriate footwear can help to reduce forgetfulness.  

Low Light Conditions 

Fewer daylight hours in the winter months means that outdoor work is more likely to happen in low light conditions. Snow, sleet and freezing rain can reduce visibility even further.  

Along with other pre-winter preparations, ensure that anyone who will be working outdoors has appropriate high-visibility reflective clothing. If the reflective properties are incorporated into coats, hats, gloves or overalls, consider having two sets for each employee so that they can be changed if they become wet. 

Even for those who won’t routinely be working outdoors, low lighting can hide or mask slippery surfaces. Additional lighting in parking lots and along sidewalks can help to minimize these risks. If this isn’t possible, consider establishing walking paths that will be the first to be cleared and that are in the best-lit areas of the lot. 

Winter Driving 

Not everyone grew up in the north, so they may not have a lot of experience driving in the snow. Even those who are experienced can’t control the actions of other drivers.  

The pandemic has taught us that many types of work can be performed from home. Review any existing work-from-home policies to determine if they can be expanded to include working from home during winter weather events.  

Establish and enforce driving policies for any employee who is required to travel as part of their job. Because these policies may involve stopping for an extended period of time or staying an additional day away from home, be sure that employees will have adequate funds to cover additional expenses.  

If it is essential for fleet or service vehicles to operate in snowy or icy conditions, plan for each vehicle to be serviced and maintained before winter. Stock each vehicle with chains or studded tires and an emergency kit that includes sand, a shovel, a flashlight with batteries, a snow brush, an ice scraper, emergency flares, water, snacks, blankets and any other essential items. Encourage employees to keep the fuel tank full and their cell phones charged.  

Using Powered Equipment 

Many people own snow blowers, snow plows, utility vehicles and chainsaws, so it can be easy to overlook the need for training on how to correctly use these types of power tools and equipment. This can be further complicated because small power tools and equipment can be readily purchased at local home improvement stores and sometimes no one is aware that it’s onsite until they see the item in use.  

Review—or create, if necessary—procedures for using all types of powered equipment. Include procedures for clearing jams and refueling. For items that are rechargeable, ensure that there are suitable power sources and locations for recharging. 

Overexertion 

Proper hydration, nutrition and taking breaks aren’t just summertime needs. They’re also important during winter tasks like shoveling snow and removing ice.  

Shoveling snow is a highly aerobic activity, whether it is done manually or with the aid of a snow blower. Even for those who are well conditioned and in good health, working in cold weather increases risk because low temperatures increase heart rates and blood pressure.  

Each year, more than 100 people die from heart attacks suffered while shoveling snow, and thousands more are injured, according to the National Safety Council. Back injuries, exhaustion, dehydration and muscle strains are among the top injuries reported.  

Establish a stretching program and demonstrate proper shoveling techniques. Employees should also be encouraged to rest as often as necessary.  

Clearing Snow from a Roof 

The weight of excessive snow or ice on a roof can pose a risk of it collapsing. But, before sending crews onto the roof, a determination must be made by a competent person about whether or not the roof is structurally safe to have people on it. 

Even if a roof is structurally sound, methods that do not involve employees or contractors being on the roof to remove the snow are generally safer. Aerial lifts, appropriate scaffolds with non-slip working surfaces and rungs, and even ladders are options that can help reduce risk. 

If having workers on the roof is determined to be the best (or only) option, plan for hazards such as slippery surfaces, higher winds, lower temperatures, electrical wires and skylights. Verify the use of anchorage points, fall protection gear, proper outerwear, rest and warming schedules and the use of tools with insulated handles. 

Power Outages 

Downed power lines and the loss of power are inconvenient. They can also be dangerous. Plan for extended outages. Keep an updated list of contacts for utility providers as well as names, locations and phone numbers of local companies that rent power generators, equipment, office space or other items that may be necessary during an extended outage. 

Teach employees not to move or work around downed power lines. These should only be cleared and handled by trained utility workers. 

Seasonal Illnesses 

Colds, flus and pneumonia happen more frequently in winter months. Cold weather can also aggravate existing conditions like arthritis, chronic headaches and sinus problems.  

For manufacturing facilities, distribution centers and service organizations, having a large number of employees call off due to illnesses creates several challenges. This can be especially problematic if employees with mild symptoms cannot work from home. 

Before winter arrives, stock up on hand sanitizer, soap, tissues, disposable towels and surface cleaners. Post signs in common areas to remind everyone to wash their hands often and to stay home when they are unwell.  

Create a plan that outlines essential functions and determine how those functions can be performed with minimal staff. If necessary, cross-train employees so that multiple people are capable of completing a variety of essential functions.  

Winter Blues 

Slip and fall injuries and seasonal illnesses aren’t the only statistics that go up in the winter. Depression, Seasonal Affective Disorder, mental fatigue, holiday stress and other mental health conditions also increase in cold-weather months. 

Create or review sick leave policies to clarify that sick time can be taken for both physical and mental conditions. Company Employee Assistance Programs may also be able to provide programs, posters, safety talks and additional resources to help everyone recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health conditions. 

Working in winter weather adds challenges and increases risk. But the safety hazards involved with working in in cold conditions can be identified, planned for and minimized. 

This article originally appeared in the October 1, 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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