Winter weather comes with all sorts of different risks and vulnerabilities on a job site. Knowing what to expect and how to manage when a storm hits can mean the difference between success and real safety concerns. Make sure you know how to prepare to keep your team safe this winter. Here are a few key things to keep in mind.
Know the Risks of Cold Stress
No specific Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standard currently covers employees who work in cold conditions, but that doesn’t mean that the risk is not a critical one. Employers are required under the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970, to protect workers from recognized hazards causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm. With that in mind, it’s vital for employers and employees to have an awareness of cold stress, the illnesses and injuries cold stress can cause and how to prevent these environmentally induced maladies.
A cold environment forces the body to work harder to maintain its temperature. According to OSHA, cold stress occurs by driving down the skin temperature and eventually the internal body, or core, temperature. Most of the body’s energy in a cold environment is used to keep the internal core temperature warm. Over time, the body begins to shift blood flow from the extremities (hands, feet, arms and legs) and outer skin to the core (chest and abdomen). This can lead to serious health problems and can cause tissue damage, possibly even death.
Potential Health Impacts and Response
OSHA and NIOSH identify several common cold-induced illnesses and injuries. These include hypothermia, frostbite, trench foot, chilblains, and cold-water immersion. Symptoms of these conditions vary from mild to severe. Educate yourself and your team on the possible symptoms and when basic first aid is not enough. Generally, it’s important to recognize when the body is experiencing the different forms of cold stress and then knowing when it’s time to warm up to avoid injury. Risk factors that dramatically contribute to cold stress can include wetness or dampness in a work environment, improper dress for the conditions, predisposed health conditions, poor physical conditioning, and exhaustion. While recognizing symptoms and risk factors is important, the best response is actually the prevention of cold stress.
Preventing Cold Stress
OSHA offers helpful guidance for preventing cold stress in workers, including engineering controls, training, safe work practices, and personal protective equipment. Think of cold weather attire and other preventative measures as the foundational components for employers to build into their cold condition work plans.
Training should also help workers themselves prevent and recognize cold stress illnesses and injuries, and how to apply first aid treatment if needed. They should also be trained on appropriate engineering controls, work practices and PPE to reduce the overall risk.
The priority, however, should be for employers to use safe work practices. For example, OSHA recommends employers provide plenty of warm, sweetened liquids. Schedule heavy work during the warmer parts of the day if possible. Assign workers to tasks in pairs so they can monitor each other for signs of cold stress. Empower employees to take a break in a warm area if and when they need one. Let new workers and those returning from time away acclimatize themselves to the conditions by gradually increasing their workload to help build up a tolerance, etc. The more you do as an employer, the more effective your team can be even in cold weather environments.
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