How to Protect Workers from Hypothermia and Frostbite
Keeping employees warm when performing outside work in winter is the responsibility of both workers and management. Here are seven ways to prevent cold stress injuries and illnesses, which can include frostbite and hypothermia.
Keep in mind that high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes can make workers more vulnerable to cold stress. Also, blood pressure is generally higher in the winter because low temperatures cause blood vessels to narrow. The bottom line: Take the risks of cold weather seriously. Watch out for workers, and have them watch out for themselves and each other.
Hold a toolbox talk on the risks. Teach workers about the risks of hypothermia and frostbite, the signs and symptoms to watch for in themselves and each other and what to do if they notice them. Early signs of hypothermia include blue lips and fingers, uncontrollable shivering and poor coordination. Signs and symptoms of frostbite include reddened skin that develops gray or white patches, tingling and aching, loss of feeling and hardened skin.
Limit roof work in the coldest weather. Wind chill is typically lower on high roofs and can hasten the development of cold stress. If snow must be removed from a roof to prevent collapse, OSHA advises prioritizing removal strategies that don’t involve workers going on the roof — for example, using snow rakes or drag lines from the ground.
Provide beverages. Dehydration increases the risk of hypothermia. And it’s easy to get dehydrated when working in cold, dry air. Warm, sweetened beverages are typically recommended, but cold beverages also solve the problem. (Drinking a warm beverage might warm you for a minute, but the heat won’t have any lasting effect, and if its makes you sweat, the sweating could cancel out any warmth created.)
Permit regular breaks. Working in the cold can cause exhaustion. Short breaks offer time to rest and recover, and to change socks or sock liners, glove liners and underwear if they’re wet. OSHA’s web page on cold stress offers a work/break chart that suggests break times and intervals based on wind and temperature.
Provide shelter. Whether it’s a heated trailer or a temporary construction shelter, give workers a place to get warm during breaks.
Make sure workers dress for the weather. Train them in how to choose appropriate clothing. Breathable and loose-fitting layers, insulated coveralls, an insulated vest, a fleece-lined hoodie, a helmet liner, glove liners or insulated gloves, thermal socks or socks plus sock liners, and wraparound glasses are good gear for keeping warm.
Use the buddy system. Have employees work in pairs so they can keep an eye on each other.
Marianne Wait is an editor and writer who creates content for Fortune 500 brands.