With winter rapidly approaching, it is important to protect workers from the coming cold temperatures and potential extreme weather. Prolonged exposure to these conditions can result in serious health problems, including trench foot, hypothermia and frostbite. Extreme cases can even result in death. Although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has no specific standards pertaining to work in cold environments, employers are obligated to provide a workplace free of recognized hazards, including those caused by winter weather.
In general, outdoor work requires preparation. However, in the winter months, it calls for additional planning. Employees should be trained on winter hazard recognition, identifying and monitoring themselves for signs of cold stress, and they should know actions to take if they exhibit these symptoms. It is important to note that people who are in poor physical condition or have predisposed medical conditions, such as hypertension, hypothyroidism and diabetes, are at a higher risk of sustaining an injury or illness as a result of cold stress. Emergency help should be sought immediately if someone is experiencing uncontrolled shivering, slurred speech, clumsy movements, fatigue or confused behavior.
Encourage workers to protect themselves from cold, wet and windy conditions by dressing accordingly. OSHA suggests wearing multiple layers to provide better insulation and to help adjust to changing temperatures. OSHA’s winter weather guide recommends, “An inner layer of wool, silk or synthetic (polypropylene) to keep moisture away from the body; a middle layer of wool or synthetic to provide insulation even when wet; and an outer wind and rain protection layer that allows some ventilation to prevent overheating.”
OSHA also indicates that a knit hat should be worn along with insulated, waterproof boots and gloves. Of course, when working around energized lines or circuit parts, all winter clothing must also meet arc-resistant ratings.
When working in the cold, it is important to stay dry. Any moisture or dampness caused by sweat, snow or rain can increase the rate of body heat loss. Therefore, having an extra set of dry clothes is always a good idea when working in winter conditions. Tight clothing should be avoided because it can reduce blood flow and result in more rapid heat loss.
Outdoor work in the winter should be scheduled at the warmest time of the day. Employers and employees should pay attention to weather conditions during winter storms and have a reliable means of communication with each other. This can be helpful if a work stoppage or evacuation becomes necessary. Being aware of and monitoring severe weather indicators, such as outdoor sirens, radio and television, can be helpful, as well. In addition, workers can better monitor each other for cold stress symptoms if they work in pairs.
Employers should provide a warm, dry place for workers to take breaks from freezing temperatures. Exhaustion and fatigue in cold weather can result in a higher rate of body heat loss. Provide warm beverages and sports drinks for employees, and inform them that avoiding caffeine and alcohol can help them maintain a warmer body temperature. Employees should also consider eating warm, high-calorie foods, such as pasta, when preparing to work in cold environments.
Other measures an employer can take to protect workers include providing the right tools for the job, offering de-icing solutions for tools or equipment, shielding work areas from wind or providing radiant heaters.
Fuel-burning heaters should be used outdoors only because they emit carbon monoxide. Electricians should never use a fuel-burning heater indoors or in any enclosed area.
Linemen and wiremen attempting to restore power in winter conditions must use extra caution, as well.
OSHA’s winter weather guide states, “Repairing and/or replacing damaged power lines in severe winter weather conditions are especially hazardous. A major hazard is snow, because the moisture can reduce the insulation value of protective equipment, and could cause electrocution. In these conditions de-energized work is safer, but if energized work must be done, qualified workers and supervisors must first do a hazard analysis that includes evaluating the weather conditions and identifying how to safely do the job.”
Remember that de-energized lines should be treated as if they are energized, and you should never touch metal surfaces with your bare hands.
If you would like more information regarding cold and winter weather safety, OSHA’s website (www.osha.gov) provides numerous resources, or you can check out the National Institute of Safety and Health cold stress guide (www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/coldstress).