Outdoor winter safety: Prepare your outdoor workers
If you have employees working outside during cold winter months, you know how crucial it is that they’re prepared for freezing temperatures and their accompanying hazards. We’ve prepared a list of outdoor winter safety tips, provided by OSHA, including how to recognize freezing effects such as hypothermia, frostbite and more.
Share these outdoor winter safety tips to keep your workers safe.
When temperatures hover near or below freezing, the hazard of what OSHA calls “cold stress” is greatly heightened for those working outside, such as construction workers, police officers, firefighters recreational workers, snow cleanup crews, landscapers and more. Risk factors for cold stress include:
- Wetness/dampness, dressing improperly, and exhaustion
- Predisposing health conditions such as hypertension, hypothyroidism, and diabetes
- Poor physical conditioning
Wind chill intensifies freezing effects
Increased wind speed heightens the risk of cold stress, because it causes heat to leave the body more rapidly. Wetness from surrounding conditions or from sweat wicks vital heat from the body, which cools even more rapidly when exposed to cold winds. Cold stress then sets in, driving down skin temperature even further, leading to a dangerous decline in internal body temperature.
Employers need to be aware of current wind chill factor before sending workers outside in order to properly gauge their exposure to risk. Workers should also be trained in how to recognize and work safely under those conditions. Managers should monitor workers’ physical condition during outdoor tasks, especially new workers who may not be used to working in the cold, or workers returning after a period of absence.
Train your workers to:
- Dress properly. Wear several layers of clothing to insulate your body by trapping warm, dry air inside. Layering is a more effective way of trapping heat than wearing one thick layer. Wool and polypropylene trap warm air the best and do not retain moisture. Be sure to avoid materials such as cotton and denim that trap moisture and do not properly insulate when wet.
- Choose a coat with a wind and waterproof outer layer.
- Wear a hat, scarf and turtleneck sweater to protect your head and neck, which lose heat faster than any other part of the body. Your cheeks, ears and nose are the most prone to frostbite.
OSHA recommends tuning in to NOAA Weather Radio, a nationwide network of radio stations that broadcast continuous weather information from the nearest NWS office to you. They provide alerts when wind chill conditions reach critical thresholds: Wind Chill Advisories are issued when wind chill temperatures are potentially hazardous.
Wind Chill Warnings are issued when wind chill temperatures are life threatening.
According to OSHA, serious cold-related illness and injuries may occur when the body is unable to warm itself. Permanent tissue damage and possibly even death may result. Three types of cold stress to watch out for include trench foot, frostbite, and hypothermia. Our outdoor winter safety tips below explain what to look for and how to best treat the injured worker.
The extent of frostbite is difficult to judge until hours after thawing. There are two levels of frostbite:
- Superficial frostbite: White, waxy or grayish-yellow patches on the affected areas. Skin feels cold and numb. Skin surface feels stiff and underlying tissue feels soft when depressed.
- Deep frostbite: Also characterized by waxy and pale skin. Affected parts feel cold, hard, and solid and cannot be depressed. Large blisters may appear after rewarming.
What to do/What not to do if you suspect frostbite
- Get the person to a warm place immediately.
- Remove any constrictive clothing items and jewelry that could impair circulation.
- If you notice signs of frostbite, seek medical attention immediately.
- Place dry, sterile gauze between toes and fingers to absorb moisture and to keep them from sticking together.
- Slightly elevate the affected part(s) to reduce pain and swelling.
- If you are more than one hour from a medical facility, and only if there is no chance of refreezing, then frostbite can be treated by immersing the area in lukewarm, not hot water (100 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit). If you do not have a thermometer, test the water first to see if it is warm. Rewarming usually takes 20 to 45 minutes or until tissues soften.
- Do not use water hotter than 105 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Do not use water colder than 100 degrees Fahrenheit since it will not thaw frostbite quickly enough.
- Do not rub or massage the frostbite area.
- Do not rub with ice or snow.
- Do not apply a direct heat source (stove, heat lamp, fireplace or heatingpad) to frostbitten skin.
Hypothermia sets in when the body loses more heat than it produces. Symptoms include change in mental status, uncontrollable shivering, cool abdomen and a low core body temperature. Severe hypothermia may cause rigid muscles, dark and puffy skin, irregular heartbeat and respiration, and unconsciousness.
What to do if you suspect hypothermia
- Get the person out of the cold, protecting him or her from further heat loss.
- Seek immediate medical attention.
- Add insulation such as blankets, pillows, towels or newspapers beneath and around them.
- Be sure the victim’s head is covered or well-insulated.
- Replace wet clothing with dry clothing. Handle the victim gently because rough handling can cause cardiac arrest. Keep the victim in a horizontal (flat) position.
Trench foot is a non-freezing injury of the feet caused by prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions. It can occur in temperatures as high as 60°F if feet are constantly wet. Injury occurs because wet feet lose heat 25 times faster than dry feet. Symptoms include reddening skin, tingling, pain, swelling, leg cramps, numbness and blisters.
What to do if you suspect trench foot
- Call 911 immediately in an emergency; otherwise seek medical assistance as soon as possible.
- Remove wet shoes/boots and wet socks.
- Dry the feet and discontinue working immediately.
- Keep affected feet elevated and avoid walking. Get medical attention.
Although working in winter weather is sometimes unavoidable, you can help your workers prevent winter mishaps with these outdoor winter safety tips.