Working safely in the winter

Companies in many parts of the country are preparing for the oncoming winter, which presents quite a few unique hazards for workers. The most important to note is hypothermia, which can begin quickly and harm worker health and productivity. Make sure that employees have the right gear and are properly trained for cold and wet working conditions.

Deteriorating conditions
Hypothermia can set in very quickly, but it doesn't always necessarily have to do with the temperature outside. For example, when it is 30 degrees out, workers can stay safe for up to an hour with their bare skin exposed, according to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA). When the wind is blowing even 10 miles an hour, a 30-degree day is equivalent to 21 degrees, so ill effects can appear even sooner. Consequently, always factor in wind chill with the apparent temperature when judging the conditions for outdoor work.

Water temperature is also different in terms of the effect it has on hypothermia onset. Ocean, river, or lake temperatures that are below body temperature (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit) can eventually cause hypothermia and will do so more quickly the lower the water's temperature is.

Cold weather symptoms
Teach personnel how to recognize hypothermia so that they can help their injured coworkers. It usually begins in the fingers, hands, toes, feet, ears, and nose. Hypothermia is apparent when skin appears pale and waxy, eventually becoming hard and numb to the touch.

Move workers to a warm and dry area if they seem to be experiencing hypothermia. Remove any wet and tight clothing that keeps the body from warming and restricting blood flow. Never rub workers' skin to warm them, because this can damage their tissue. Instead, gently warm them by placing them in water that is no hotter than 105 degrees over the course of 25 to 40 minutes. Warmer water that is poured directly over frostbitten or hypothermic tissue can cause serious damage.

Immediately seek medical attention if an employee is suffering from cold-related injuries.

Putting procedures in place
Create a detailed plan for working outside whenever conditions are very cold. This plan should include what equipment to use, how long employees can stay outside, and how to deal with people who appear to be succumbing to the cold.

Layered clothes will allow employees to quickly discard excess garments if the temperature rises or add more if it drops. Work should also be performed during the warmest parts of the day when the sun is up.

Give employees the chance to take frequent short breaks from their work so that they can warm up, even if it affects productivity. Let workers who appear very tired to rest because being in the cold when fatigued can have serious health consequences.

Workers should frequently consume warm, sweet beverages to stay hydrated and to maintain their energy levels. Avoid caffeine, which is a diuretic that can make retaining moisture difficult. Encourage employees to consume warm, high-calorie foods such as pasta dishes and hot sandwiches.

Offer or recommend items besides appropriate winter jackets such as gloves, hats, and waterproof insulated boots. Have employees carry extra gear in case their original items become lost, wet, or damaged.

Guarantee safety
Working outside in cold and inclement conditions is physically demanding as well as dangerous. Employers can protect their workers with appropriate gear as well as through proper organization. Employees will be warm and safe when they monitor each other, take frequent breaks, and eat properly.  

http://www.osha.gov/Publications/coldcard/coldcard.html
http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/coldstress/

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