Working Safe in Winter

Cold weather presents risks and challenges that require safe practices

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Whether you like the cooler temperatures or not, it’s only March and they’re still here. Colder temps present some hazards we need to remember before heading outside. 

The effects of cold weather on employees working outside can cause a decrease in performance and productivity as employees slow down or are distracted by the cold. Also, the colder weather can increase the risk of incidents and injuries as employees may suffer from cold related symptoms such as loss of concentration, lack of coordination and distractions. 

But it’s not just the cold temperatures you have to consider. Wind, dampness, getting wet, your overall physical fitness, medical conditions like diabetes and hypertension and inadequate clothing are all contributors to cold stress.

Risks of Cold Stress

Hypothermia is a medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, causing a dangerously low body temperature. Normal body temperature is 98.6 F and hypothermia can begin when the body temperature falls below 95 degrees. When your body temperature drops, your heart, nervous system and other organs can’t work normally. Left untreated, hypothermia can lead to complete failure of your heart and respiratory system and eventually to death. 

In milder symptoms you can be alert but shivering constantly. In severe symptoms the shivering stops, you become confused, speech is slurred, and your heart rate and breathing will slow down. Getting medical attention is vital to surviving once severe symptoms are evident. If you notice a co-worker suffering from hypothermia, get them to a warm place and remove wet clothing and wrap them with blankets or jackets until medical help arrives. 

Frostbite is the freezing of the skin and underlying tissues. In the earliest stage of frostbite, known as frostnip, there is no permanent damage to skin. Symptoms include cold skin and a prickling feeling, followed by numbness, and inflamed or discolored skin. As frostbite worsens, skin may become hard or waxy looking. 

Frostnip can be treated by rewarming the area, however, frostbite is a medical emergency and needs treatment because it can cause permanent damage to skin, muscle, bone and other tissue.

Usually, the areas of the body that are most exposed will be the ears, face, fingers and toes as these parts of the body tend to be under protected or not protected at all. If you notice an employee suffering from frostbite call 911, loosely cover the area but do not rub the area, break blisters or try to rewarm the area.

Preventing Cold Stress

• Know the symptoms of exposure

• Dress properly in layers

• Monitor yourself and your co-workers for symptoms

• Keep extra dry clothes handy to replace clothes when they get wet

• Drink warm drinks, but avoid caffeine as this promotes dehydration

• Stay hydrated (it’s not just a summer thing)

• Wear the appropriate PPE (gloves, face coverings, head coverings, etc.)

• Take frequent breaks to get warm

• Avoid fatigue and exhaustion — get plenty of rest

• Use the buddy system 

Don’t fall into a sense of cold-weather complacency thinking these things can’t happen to you. Cold stress can happen to anyone who isn’t prepared no matter how much experience you have working in cold weather. Stay warm and stay safe.


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