Line Contractor

Weathering the Weather: Cold weather work poses many safety challenges

According to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the incidence rate per 10,000 full-time workers for occupational injuries and illnesses from ice-, sleet- and snow-related events in 2017 was 1.8, down from a high of 3.9 in 2014. Nationwide, there were 20,460 injuries related to ice, sleet or snow in total.

The five states with the highest rates are Alaska, with an incidence rate of 12.0; Wyoming, 9.0; Montana, 8.6; Maine, 8.2; and Connecticut, 6.4.

The good news is the numbers are decreasing, meaning that employers are making a greater effort to protect their workers during cold and inclement weather.

Still, four areas of concern remain.

Hypothermia is a prolonged exposure to cold that will eventually use up a body’s stored energy, resulting in an abnormally low body temperature. This can affect the brain, making the person unable to think clearly or move well.

Frostbite is an injury caused by a part of the body freezing. Frostbite causes a loss of feeling and color in the affected areas—most often the nose, ears, chin, fingers or toes. Frostbite can permanently damage body tissue, and, in severe cases, require amputation.

Trench foot, also known as immersion foot, is an injury caused by prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions. The injury occurs because wet feet lose heat 25 times faster than dry feet. To try to protect itself, the body constricts blood vessels in the feet, shutting down circulation and causing the skin tissue to die from lack of oxygen.

Chilblains are caused by repeated exposure of the skin to temperatures just above freezing to as high as 60°F. The cold exposure causes damage to the small blood vessels in the skin and eventually causes permanent damage. This typically occurs on cheeks, ears, fingers and toes.

How do line contractors in cold-weather states protect their workers? Outback Power Co., Great Falls, Mont., works in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado.

“We get to see some severe and cold weather,” said Willie Pyette, Outback Power’s owner and president. “We make it clear from the day we hire our people that they are expected to work in various extreme conditions. It is an important part of the power line industry and pretty well understood. Many times, our industry works in emergency response situations that require production.”

Precautions are taken as necessary, according to Pyette.

“Depending on the project and timelines, we sometimes shut down because of extreme temperatures,” he said. “One of our ‘weather hacks’ is that crews will work outside for a period of time and then warm up in a vehicle until they feel safe to go out again.”

“The only change we’ve made [since the COVID-19 pandemic started] is that when our crews contact the public or go into our customer’s warehouse or office space, we require our guys to keep their faces covered. We have also supplied our employees with a company logo bandanna for face covering,” he said.

In addition, there are specific things that line contractors can do to protect their workers in terms of training, work processes, equipment/tools and clothing.

Training

“Living here day to day, we take a lot of this as second nature, but every morning before we start a new task, we conduct a job-hazard analysis, which includes any kind of weather issues,” said Larry Rhymer, Alaska inside operations manager for Sturgeon Electric Co., Anchorage, Alaska. “We do a lot of storm work when it is the nastiest, and sometimes the coldest, and a big thing you have to manage is the cold.”

“We conduct training on cold stress and the effects of hypothermia, as well as storm preparedness, to try to make our workers as prepared and ready as we can,” said Justin Greene, NW Safety Manager for International Line Builders, headquartered in Oregon, with branches in Washington, California and Idaho.

Rocky Mountain Contractors, Helena, Mont., provides safety alerts and tip sheets on working in cold and inclement weather during winter months.

“These tip sheets highlight signs and symptoms of hypothermia and frostbite, as well as information on prevention steps, such as covering exposed skin, layering of clothes, and removing and replacing wet layers. We also provide winter driving tip sheets,” said Brett Herzog, president.

In addition, the company posts and reviews wind chill charts.

Work Processes

Sturgeon Electric’s crews know how long a person can be in the cold, and they plan their breaks accordingly.

“In the winter, our trucks run from shift in to shift out, and the truck is a warm-up station for every crew,” Rhymer said. “We also dissect projects into small chunks of time to reduce exposure.

“We do [COVID-19] testing before to go to a new site, and another test once we are on site. We also have added rooms for isolation if needed. No buses this year, only crew cab trucks. And dinners in their rooms,” he said.

“We stay warm by working hard and constantly moving,” said Josh Henrick, general foreman of line construction for Northern Powerline Constructors, Anchorage, Alaska. “If the weather is really horrible, we will let the guys ‘cab up’ for a little, so they can warm up and dry out.”

At Rocky Mountain Contractors, crews are instructed to keep an eye on each other and monitor for early signs of hypothermia and frostbite, as indicated in their training materials.

“Warm-up breaks and cabbing up are encouraged when crews feel they need them and before cold stress sets in,” Herzog said.

Equipment and Tools

“We try to store and park as much equipment and trucks in our shop as we can so that when the crews come in, they will be warm,” Rhymer said. “What we cannot get inside the shop will be plugged in at night and started and warmed up before the crews leave in the morning. We also have a lot of heaters for manholes or tents that can be set up if the weather gets too bad.”

International Line Builders focuses on providing equipment and tools that are specific for use while working in cold and inclement conditions, such as safety glasses or goggles that have been treated, or can continually be treated, with anti-fog lens cleaner.

“This way, when they go from hot to cold, and vice versa, they are not fighting with steaming and fogging,” Greene said.

“We make sure cab heaters work in all of our equipment,” Henrick said. “We also try to make sure that all equipment has all of its windows intact. If the equipment does not have a cab, we will set up heaters for the operators.”

Rocky Mountain Contractors provides Garmin satellite communication devices for workers in remote areas and provides ice cleats in slick conditions.

“Most of our equipment has cabs that provide protection from cold weather,” Herzog said. “We also encourage winter vehicle preparations such as winter tires and chains.”

Clothing

“Because of our [flame-resistant] requirements, we supply FR clothing,” Rhymer said. “However, the men themselves buy a lot of their own clothing. It’s all about layering, lots and lots of layers. The clothes they have really help keep our men dry and warm, or at least warmer.”

“Our major concerns are making sure that our guys have the proper PPE and making sure that they can still remain safe and able to use their equipment and tools while also staying warm,” Greene said. “Smart materials and layered clothing systems allow the men to not only stay at the right temperature throughout the day, but it is also safer, as the clothing is less obtrusive to their movement, which in turn makes them safer.”

International Line Builders also offers the Tyndale Program to its employees that allows them to tailor the winter gear to their specific wants and needs.

“The program is an online, allowance-based program that allows the guys to buy not only Tyndale gear, but many other brands,” he said. “This allows the workers to layer accordingly to perform their work throughout the day.”

“We issue our employees insulated clothing, and, if the work takes place in the Arctic, we issue Arctic wear,” Henrick said. “Most of the guys wear ‘the blacks’ [boots] down to zero degrees, then ‘whites’ are worn for temperatures below that. Our preferred manufacturers of clothing are DragonWear and Carhartt.”

Northern Powerline Constructors also issues hand warmers and multiple layers of insulated gloves to its crews.

“Ridgid gloves are popular for slope work,” Henrick said. “Another glove we like is made by Superior Glove. The model is called Endura. Guys will use multiple sets of gloves during the day. Once a glove gets wet from sweat or snow, they go onto the defrost of the truck. This dries the glove fairly quickly.”

In addition, the company provides workers with rubber boots and ice cleats.

Rocky Mountain Contractors provides workers with a PPE vending machine that can supply a variety of winter gloves, hard hat liners and winter face masks in a timely manner.

“We also have FR clothing accounts for employees, so they can select other cold-weather gear that they may need, such as insulated bibs, coats, etc.,” Herzog said.

For the most extreme conditions, such as Sturgeon Electric’s projects on Alaska’s North Slope, the company takes a much higher and more intense set of precautions.

“There, you have to micromanage in terms of how much time outside, based on how cold it is,” Rhymer said.

The employees always work in pairs, and everyone checks themselves and each other often to make sure no exposed skin parts are showing.

“They also work as close to their vehicles as they can, and foremen check on the crews routinely,” he said. “In addition, everything related to clothing gets a lot bigger, and production tends to be very, very slow.” 

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