Cold weather is relative. To someone born and raised in southern Florida, a 40-degree day can be extremely cold and hard to deal with. To someone in northern Michigan, that same weather is the balmy first sign of spring. But no matter where you work, there’s definitely such a thing as weather that’s too cold to work in. The key is knowing how to prepare for working outside during winter months, and what to do for your employees to make their workday safer.
OSHA’s Cold Stress Equation
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is the last word on workplace safety. They’ve created an equation that explains the different factors that make up a dangerously cold work environment.
Not all cold days are created equal. Different risk factors add up to create dangerous conditions, where they otherwise might not exist. These factors affect the way a human body can sustain itself in stressful temperatures. The basic equation is Low Temperature + Wetness + Wind Speed = Danger of Illness or Injury. It’s not just the low temperatures, although that can be the single factor in single-digit weather, but it’s generally a combination of factors that make winter work so dangerous.
Ways to Make Outdoor Work Safer
Fighting off any of the danger factors will make working outdoors safer. Every one of your employees should be required to wear proper winter gear. This includes three layers of loose-fitting clothing, a hat, insulated gloves and a pair of insulated boots. In very windy conditions, face covering can be an important addition.
Once your people have shown up dressed for the weather, it’s up to you to make the worksite as safe as possible.
• Erect windbreaks around areas where people have to work for long periods
• Provide radiant heaters in unheated indoor areas
• Rotate crews indoors and out every hour
• Provide coffee, tea, broth or hot chocolate for warming breaks
• Assign workers in teams, and have them watch each other for signs of cold stress
• Schedule the heaviest work in the warmest part of the day
The first symptoms of being cold are shivering and stamping the feet. If someone continues to be exposed to cold weather, the body temperature will drop and shivering will stop. Workers may fumble and look uncoordinated and might even be disoriented and confused. He might start making no sense when he talks or he may sit down and be unable to stand back up. At this point, the worker is likely suffering from hypothermia. When this happens, it’s important that coworkers immediately help the person into a warm environment for medical attention.
If hypothermia occurs, the first step you should take is to call 911. Move the person to a warm and dry area, remove any wet clothes he may be wearing and cover him with layers of blankets, clothing or trash bags. Give warm sweetened drinks, such as tea or cocoa, to warm his insides (be careful not to give HOT drinks, as they won’t be able to detect how hot they are). Keep them as warm as possible and have someone stay with them until medical help arrives.
If your company works outside in the winter, what do you do to keep your team safe from the cold?