Spring and summer may be the prime seasons for construction in many parts of the U.S. and Canada, but many laborers also work during the colder winter months. While the risk for heat illness wanes during this time, the colder weather presents its own challenges that employers and employees need to be aware of.
“The winter season poses unique challenges and risks for LIUNA members,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “One of the ways employers can meet their responsibility to provide a safe work environment is to ensure workers have the appropriate tools and training they need to avoid cold-related illnesses and injuries during this season.”
Here are some of the top winter hazards in construction and ways to avoid them:
Workers exposed to cold temperatures are at risk of cold stress, which is an umbrella term for any cold-related illness or injury. This occurs when skin temperature, and eventually internal body temperature, is driven down more quickly than it can be warmed up. Some common examples of cold stress include:
- Trench foot: a foot injury caused by prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions. Symptoms include reddening skin, tingling, pain, swelling, leg cramps, numbness and blisters.
- Frostbite: an injury that occurs when skin is exposed to freezing temperatures. It typically affects extremities like fingers, toes, noses and ear lobes and can cause permanent tissue damage. Symptoms include red skin with white or gray patches, tingling, aching and numbness. In severe cases, amputation may be necessary.
- Hypothermia: an illness caused by an extreme drop in body temperature (below 95℉). This mostly occurs in freezing temperatures, but can also happen in cool temperatures if the person is damp or immersed in cold water. Symptoms include uncontrollable shivering, loss of coordination, confusion, slurred speech, slowed heart rate and unconsciousness. Hypothermia is a medical emergency, so if a worker exhibits symptoms, contact emergency medical services right away.
Preventing Cold Stress on the Job
As is the case with many jobsite hazards, preparation is often the best prevention for cold stress. To prevent cold stress on the job, employers should:
- Monitor workers’ physical condition, looking out for signs of cold stress.
- Schedule breaks in warm, dry areas.
- Monitor the weather and try to schedule work during the warmest part of the day.
- When possible, use heaters to regulate worksite temperature.
- Implement the buddy system and train workers on common signs and symptoms of cold stress (e.g., shivering, confusion, slurred speech, heart rate/breathing slow, loss of consciousness).
Additionally, workers should come prepared and properly dressed for work in winter conditions. Here are some tips on what to wear and how to stay warm on the job:
- Dress in layers. The first two layers should be wool, silk or synthetic to keep moisture away from the body and provide insulation. The outer layer should provide wind and rain protection and allow ventilation to prevent overheating.
- Avoid tight clothing, as it reduces blood circulation to vulnerable extremities like fingers and toes.
- Wear a hat that covers the ears, insulated gloves and insulated, waterproof boots with good traction.
- Keep extra clothing handy in case you get wet and need to change.
Slips, Trips and Falls
Slips, trips and falls account for 27 percent of all workplace injuries year-round, and winter weather can increase the likelihood of these accidents. Snow, sleet and ice can make streets, sidewalks, parking lots and other surfaces slippery and hard to walk on, increasing the risk of falling on the job. And the hazard doesn’t stop once you get inside – foot traffic can also track snow and ice indoors and cause dangerous slick spots.
Preventing Slips, Trips and Falls This Winter
Slips and falls can result in anything from a mild bruise to a head trauma, but are largely preventable with proper precautions. Here are some ways to prevent slips, trips and falls this winter:
- Consistently monitor the jobsite for slick spots that can result from ice or snow. Pay special attention to areas where employees come in from outside and track in snow or ice and areas with uneven surfaces.
- Clear snow and ice from any walking surfaces and spread salt or deicer.
- Consider providing employees with non-slip shoe covers to add extra traction to their boots.
- Instruct workers to take shorter steps and walk at a slower pace.
For more information on cold stress and how to stay safe this winter, check out these LHSFNA resources:
- Cold Stress Prevention Toolbox Talk
- Preventing Cold Stress in Construction
- Slips, Trips and Falls Toolbox Talk
- “Preventing Cold Stress While Working Outdoors”