It's essential to know how to keep workers safe when the mercury dips.
If you’ve managed to plan your projects so you’re doing inside work in winter, good for you. But since that’s not always possible, it’s essential to know how to keep workers safe when the mercury dips.
Chances are you’ve worked through many winters before, but it can’t hurt to remind yourself — and your employees — of best practices.
Don’t rely on “common sense.” You can’t depend on everyone having the same idea of common sense when it comes to safety in cold weather, especially since everyone has a different definition of “cold,” and some workers may be new to cold weather. During your toolbox talks or safety meetings, talk about the hazards of cold temperatures and explain the signs and symptoms of frostbite and hypothermia. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends making cold-weather awareness part of a safety plan.
Have snow cleared before work begins. Give crews a safer work area by clearing snow and de-icing before work begins. If snow continues to fall throughout the day, don’t let it pile up; a shovelful of damp snow can weigh more than 20 pounds. If you have workers clear snow by hand, the Snow and Ice Management Association (SIMA) recommends clearing it after every few inches of snowfall and pushing rather than lifting the snow to reduce strain. See SIMA’s website for other shoveling tips.
Have workers dress for the elements. It’s best to wear at least three layers when working at, near or below freezing, avoiding cotton and anything tight. Start with a thin wool, silk or synthetic layer next to the body to keep moisture away from skin. A wool or synthetic (for example, fleece) middle layer provides insulation even when wet. An outer shell should provide wind or rain protection and preferably allow some ventilation. Insulated boots and gloves, glove and sock liners, a hard hat liner and face mask all provide extra warmth. Moisture increases heat loss, so workers should keep extra clothing on hand to change into if they sweat.
Provide warmth and beverages. Use heaters when necessary and find ways to shield work areas from wind. Make sure there’s a warm break area and allow time for breaks. Provide cold or hot beverages (not caffeinated coffee). Dehydration puts workers at a greater risk of hypothermia by reducing blood volume. Breathing dry, cold air can make the body use as much as an extra gallon of water per day according to the University of Toledo Medical Center.
Mark hidden hazards. The last thing you want is a worker twisting an ankle after stepping on an object covered by snow. Clean up the worksite before a snowfall to avert hidden hazards. If there’s snow on the site while employees are working, find and mark any covered-up objects until the snow is cleared.
Protect people on the ground during snow and ice removal from elevated surfaces. For instance, create a safety zone to keep workers out of the immediate area.
Make smart use of daylight. As days get shorter, schedule tasks that require bright light for the middle of the day, or install supplementary lighting.
Schedule heavy work during the warmest part of the day. Exhaustion happens sooner in very cold temps.
Remind workers to use extra care with ladders. Ice, cold and wind magnify the risks of ladder use. Make sure workers remove all ice and snow before using a ladder and place it on a surface clear of snow and ice. It’s always smart to keep three points of contact (for example, two hands and a foot) with the ladder. According to OSHA, workers should not use a snow rake or shovel while on a ladder because of the significant risk of falling.
Sonja Elmquist is a writer with more than 15 years of experience writing about subjects including construction, finance and U.S. commodity produce