Cold as Ice—a Winter Workplace Guide

Every winter, thousands of people die from exposure to frigid temperatures. On average, 63 percent of weather-related fatalities are due to cold exposure. Those who work outdoors during the winter months are particularly at risk. Educating workers on the dangers of cold exposure and how to protect themselves from common cold-related illnesses is essential to safety. 
 Winter forecasts can be confusing. Therefore, understanding common weather terminology is the first step in properly preparing and protecting against cold weather. Here's a quick overview of the different weather forecasts and their meanings, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: 
  • Sleet or freezing rain? Sleet is rain that freezes into ice pellets before it hits the ground. Sleet usually bounces upon hitting the ground and rarely sticks to anything. In some cases, it can accumulate like snow and be dangerous to motorists. Freezing rain is rain that occurs when the temperature is below freezing. It creates a coating of ice on trees, cars and roads.
  • Let it snow. The following three terms are in sequential order:
Winter storm outlook - issued three to five days before forecasters expect a storm to occur.
Winter storm watch - advises of an approaching storm 12 to 48 hours before snowfall.S
Winter storm warning - hazardous heavy snow, freezing rain, etc. is imminent or happening. 
  • Other important terms to know include:
Winter weather advisory - there is an accumulation of snow, freezing rain, etc. which can cause major problems if caution is not heeded.
Blizzard warning - wind gusts are 35 miles per hour or greater, and falling snow has caused low visibility for longer than three hours.
Snow flurries — light snow will fall for a short time, but accumulation is not expected.
Snow squalls — short, intense snow showers with strong, gusty winds.
Employers are responsible for providing a safe working environment and the proper personal protective equipment for cold weather. Work should always be scheduled during the warmest part of the day. Moreover, a proper jobsite will have sweetened warm liquids to keep employees hydrated and a warmed area for frequent breaks. Workers should be dressed properly in fabrics that maintain their insulation even when wet — such as wool or synthetic blends.
Employees must wear at least three layers of loose fitting clothing, a hat or hood, a knit mask to cover the face and mouth, insulated gloves and waterproof boots. 
During the winter months, one of the most common items on construction jobsites is portable heaters. While these heaters can take many shapes, sizes and types of fuel, they all come with many of the same hazards. These dangers include burns, explosions, oxygen displacement, fires and carbon monoxide.
There are certain guidelines that should be followed to minimize the risks that come with utilizing portable heaters on the worksite. Be sure workers are aware of the necessary safety procedures and precautions:
  • only use portable heaters in well-ventilated areas;
  • appropriately position fire extinguishers throughout the nearby area;
  • allow heaters to cool prior to refueling;
  • always use carbon monoxide detectors;
  • do not run heaters in an unattended area;
  • place heaters on a level, firm, noncombustible surface; and
  • be sure the heaters are positioned the appropriate distance from flammables/combustibles and if using propane (LP gas):
protect fuel lines from damage by equipment;
properly secure and store fuel tanks outside;
when not in use, turn off at cylinder;
post “no smoking” and “no open flame area” signs around cylinders; and
do not use in subgrade areas.
Even with the proper precautions, workers may still experience cold exposure illnesses. Those on the jobsite should be trained to recognize and give first aid for cold stress illnesses, as they can result in serious injuries or death. The most common illnesses caused by cold exposure are:
  • Hypothermia, which occurs when body heat is lost faster than can be replaced, lowering the body temperature to 95 degrees or below. Symptoms include appearing unusually cold, with a sudden and abrupt stop of shivering; appearing confused or disoriented and unable to walk or stand; and slowed heartbeat or breathing.
  • Frostbite, which is caused by the freezing of the skin and underlying tissue. Look for reddened skin with grey and white patches, numbness, toughening of skin and blisters.
  • Trench foot, which occurs after prolonged exposure to wet and cold temperatures. When the foot attempts to preserve heat, it shuts down blood vessels in the foot, depriving the tissue of oxygen and nutrients. Watch the feet for swelling, redness, blisters or numbness. 
Educating employees on the importance of understanding and protecting against cold weather is crucial to implementing proactive risk management solutions for construction companies.