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Every year, there is plenty of focus on heat-related safety. Workers are pulled off job sites if it gets too hot, we make sure that air-conditioned facilities are available, we provide plenty of water, and drill team members on heat safety. So why don’t we pay as much attention to cold exposure?
When we discuss winter safety on jobsites, we generally focus on the slips, trips, and falls caused by ice, snow, and slippery surfaces. We discuss the hazards of snow clearing. We consider how some tools may have added difficulties or different techniques in the cold weather. We make sure to protect our heavy equipment, inside and out.
Still, we often fail to consider the effects of prolonged exposure to the cold on jobsites. So what do you need to be on the lookout for, what are the damages that cold exposure can cause, and what are your best ways to reduce and eliminate it?
WHAT IS COLD EXPOSURE?
Cold exposure is damage that comes from being exposed to wet, windy, and cold weather. Also often referred to as cold stress, it is environmental impact on the body.
Extreme cold is what leads to cold exposure or cold stress, but it’s not the easiest thing to define. Extreme cold is often relative to region and even the individual. While folks in Texas might see temperatures that hover just above freezing to be extreme cold, workers in upstate New York might scoff at that. It’s more a question of what is “normal” for the region and the individual.
One of the key things to keep in mind when discussing cold exposure is that it isn’t a one-size-fits-all for your workers. A worker who just moved to New York from Florida will have different tolerances than a native.
Wind chill is another idea to keep in mind when considering what is “too cold.” Wind speed magnifies the chill in the air, creating a nasty effect on the skin. OSHA cites that, even at 40 degrees Fahrenheit, when the wind speed reaches 35 miles per hour the skin is affected as though the air temperature is 28 degrees.
How To Find The Right Winter Construction Gear
Head and Face
We can’t stress the importance of hard hat winter liners enough. Construction hats often create unique challenges as the hat is primarily designed to improve worker safety rather than protect from the elements.
There are a few different liners a construction worker could look for. One is a hat tube liner that goes around the rim of a hard hat and completely covers your face. This is certainly ideal for ensuring the hard hat is steady while keeping your entire face and head warm. If the liner is what you’re looking for, you’ll have to decide on which length is best for you.
If you prefer another option or aren’t wearing a hard hat, consider a traditional visibility beanie that more than adequately covers your head and ears but still makes you stand out in a construction site. These are the preferential winter hat of choice for many construction workers.
Finally, there are 3-in-1 fleeces available, which protect everything from the neck up.
You can cover nearly your entire face and it’s still comfortable.
Since your hands are the most exposed and do plenty of work outside, getting them properly protected is a must. While we recommend buying several pairs of gloves depending on the purpose, winter weather requires a special kind of glove that will completely prevent frostbite.
If you have gloves but want them to be warmer, you can simply slip a glove liner underneath to add extra warmth without adding weight. For milder weather, these work well on their own without another layer over them.
Chest and Back
Bomber jackets and parka-style jackets are a sure-fire way to keep yourself warm during extreme cold. However, temperatures below freezing often require further protection. Adding a liner is always a safe bet for improving the warmth.
If the weather is above freezing temperatures and you don’t want to wear the bomber all day, a hooded sweatshirt makes a good alternative.
As with any gear that protects you in inclement weather, make sure what you choose has reflective tape to keep you visible to traffic. With shorter daylight hours, the darkness can make it difficult to see construction workers and that’s a risk you don’t want to take.
There are a few options to best protect your feet. If there’s going to be a lot of snow at your construction site, slush boots are a safe bet here as they’ll keep your feet dry by keeping the snow out.
Another option for less snowy conditions is arctic boots, which are well-insulated and are best for extreme temperatures.
If you want something light but will keep you safe in the snow, go with shoes that have excellent traction. Slipping is a common problem construction workers have in the winter, even when the surface is well-salted, so being proactive with the right pair of shoes will help prevent accidents.
Keeping your workers safe should be your first goal on every jobsite. Having the right protective equipment, providing information and training, and keeping a keen eye on your team all comes together and ensures everyone gets home safe at night. We always pay attention to mechanical hazards, but sometimes environmental hazards go under the radar.
Damage that Cold Exposure can Cause
Different amounts of cold exposure and differing conditions can lead to various outcomes. Every person is an individual who can be hit by exposure differently. Workers who are older, who take certain medications, who have illnesses including diabetes and hypertension, or who are merely in poor physical condition will be at a higher risk.
Sometimes referred to as perniones, chill burns, or perniosis, these are on the low end of the spectrum when it comes to conditions from cold exposure. An inflammation of small blood vessels in your skin, they aren’t deadly, but are certainly painful. They come with itching, red patches, swelling, and blistering, and usually occur on the hands or feet. They are generally short-term, but can recur for years after the first incident.
Somewhat of a precursor to frostbite, frostnip generally hits the face, ears, or fingertips, and causes numbness or whitening of the skin. By getting warm when this is noticed, normal feeling and color will return. No permanent tissue damage occurs from frostnip, but if you don’t warm it up when noticed, the next step is frostbite.
When cold temperatures combine with the wet and moist environment present in heavy footwear and moisture-retaining socks, your feet will suffer. Wet feet lose heat much faster than dry feet do, so this issue can occur even in temperatures that aren’t drastically cold. As your feet try to prevent heat loss, your body constricts blood vessels and shuts down circulation to your feet. This leads to skin tissue beginning to die due to lack of oxygen, lack of nutrients, and buildup of toxic products in the feet. Items like our waterproof slush boots can help to protect your feet from wet conditions.
This is where cold exposure can take a drastic turn. Usually affecting the extremities, frostbite comes from the freezing of the skin and the underlying tissue. Reddened skin develops gray or white patches, there is severe numbness, the affected area will feel firm or hard, and blisters might occur. This must be treated immediately, removing the worker from the cold to a warm, dry area and by seeking medical assistance. Wet clothing should be removed and replaced with dry, loose coverings, and the area should be protected from contact. If addressed immediately, the extremities may be able to be saved, but severe cases can result in amputation.
Cold can take a deadly turn – in fact, according to the CDC in a study conducted from 2006 through 2010, it caused on average twice as many deaths every year as heat exposure did. While this is across the population, it shows just how dangerous cold can be – and most of those exposure deaths can be attributed to hypothermia.
Hypothermia is when body heat is lost faster than it can be replaced, with the core body temperature dropping to under 95 degrees Fahrenheit. While this generally occurs at very cold temperatures, adding moisture such as rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water can lead to hypothermia when the temperatures are well above freezing. Hypothermia can be indicated by shivering and stomping of the feet to generate heat in mild cases. However, severe cases will actually lead to the shivering to stop, and the affected worker will start to lose coordination, and show signs of confusion and disorientation. They may become unable to stand, while breathing may also slow. If left untreated, this will lead to death.
Tips to Avoid Cold Stress On a Construction Site
Plan in Advance
For employers that have work in colder areas, the recommendation is to schedule maintenance and repair jobs for warmer months. If scheduling is not an option, then the jobs should be planned for the warmer part of the day. Even a few degrees of temperature difference in the air can dramatically reduce chances of getting cold stress. Another way to mitigate the chances of cold stress is to reduce the physical demands of workers by using shorter shifts or assigning extra workers for long demanding jobs. There should be warm break areas and warm liquids available near the working environment for workers to get their skin and body temperature normalized. Some workers are more prone to cold stress. Employers should monitor workers who are at risk of cold stress and provide training to help prevent cold stress illness and injuries.
Get The Right Winter Gear
Even with all the planning and scheduling sometimes cold environments cannot be avoided. As commonsensical as it sounds, a lot of workers forget the importance of wearing the right PPE. During work it can be difficult, sometimes, to recognize the effects of long periods of sustained cold. It is necessary to stay compliant and wear recommended cold weather clothing to avoid sudden health crisis. Here are a few tips regarding winter wear:
Tight clothing, although provides good insulation it can reduce blood circulation that is essential to regulate body temperature. Warm blood must be circulated to the feet, hands and other extremities. That’s why OSHA recommends layers of loose clothing. Loose clothing helps keep blood circulation uniform, still providing the necessary warmth. Loose T-shirts, hoodies and Jackets are a good way to dress in cold weather.
Protect Ear, Face, Hands & Feet
In most work conditions it is our ears, face and hands that are exposed to the cold. Without proper winter boots, the feet are as good as exposed in extremely cold weather. Boots should be waterproof and insulated. Wearing a hat and head warmers will keep your whole body warmer since hats prevent heat from escaping your body through the head. On extremely cold days, limit the amount of time outside and take regular breaks in a warmer break room.
Keep First Aid Kits
In winter months hot packs are a good addition to the first aid kits along with a thermometer. Other useful additions during winter months are blister treatment creams, waterproof matches, safety whistle, and knowledge cards for treating hypothermia, frostbite, and snow blindness. You can even have an app on your phone that have basic first responder tips readily available.
No we are not recommending fanny packs, but OSHA does recommend carrying some readily useable cold weather gear, such as a change of clothes, extra socks, gloves, hats, jacket, blankets, and a thermos of hot liquid. If you get damp during a cold day, immediately change to dryer clothes.
Limit Exposure as Much as Possible
While it’s impossible to control the weather, employers should make sure that all employees are adequately protected with layers of clothing like High Visibility Thermal insulated work gloves, Hi-Viz Beanie, Insulated Waterproof PVC Gloves, Insulated Hard Hat Winter Liners & Hard Hat Tube Liners, all designed to keep your employees warm and comfortable. It’s also best to break up projects in smaller tasks so workers aren’t outside for long periods of time. When the weather is near zero degrees, exposing skin for any length of time can leave it vulnerable to frostbite or even worse: shock and hypothermia.
Provide workers with a warm break area
Even in the outdoors, there are several ways to keep your team safe. Using a combination of portable heaters and a heated trailer can do wonders for relieving your team in frigid conditions. While you can’t do much to control the weather, creating a space for your team to avoid the cold can make your working environment much safer.
Remove ice and snow
Snow and ice make for dangerous conditions. That’s why removing as much snow as possible from the site and salting the surfaces are great ways to reduce the chance of an accident occurring. We suggest stocking Stop ice Compound, Calcium chloride and industrial salt Spreaders. Other alternatives to salting the site include sand or even kitty litter.
Inspect the worksite
Make sure vehicles are prepared and functioning properly before your workers show up. In addition to preparing for snow and ice cleanup, it’s also important to check to make sure there aren’t any other hazards such as trees or power lines that fell overnight. Removing hazards can add hours to the day and waste money. Instead, get as much as possible cleared ahead of time so your team can do its job effectively.
As simple and straightforward as these precautions are, workers and employers sometimes forget them. It is not wise to challenge mother nature during extremely cold weather. With that, we advise that you prepare well and be safe.
Find The Right Winter Construction Gear at PowerPak
Our team at PowerPak can help you provide your organization and teams to be well-equipped through even the coldest months. Reach out to us today!