5 Safety Tips for Working in Cold Weather
Working in cold weather can be very dangerous, even if your employees are not exposed continually. Here are five safety tips for anyone working in cold weather.
- Dangers of Working in Cold Weather
- Safety Tip #1: Preventing and Responding to Incidents
- Safety Tip #2: Reinforce the Importance of Self-Care
- Safety Tip #3: Plan Ahead With a Winter Emergency Kit
- Safety Tip #4: Arm Your Workers With a Safety Alarm
- Safety Tip #5: Stay Ahead of Cold-Related Injuries
- Identify Threats Before They Impact Your People
December through February are typically the coldest months in the Northern Hemisphere, with the potential to bring sub-zero temperatures, biting winds, ice, and snowstorms.
In February 2021, Winter Storm Uri swept across the U.S., Northern Mexico, and Canada. Record-low temperatures and snowfall caused major disruptions to services like heat, water, and electricity—in Texas alone, close to 4.5 million homes and businesses faced power outages, and hundreds lost their lives due to the freezing temperatures and infrastructure failures. Companies large and small were affected, with major automakers, retail chains, and delivery services forced to halt or delay operations during the storm.
As we look towards the 2021–2022 season, many organizations are bracing for colder temperatures and the first signs of winter—and new safety challenges that come with it. Smart businesses will pay close attention to facility safety issues and take proactive measures to protect their employees, both onsite and in the field. Below, we’ll discuss why a bit of safety awareness and preparation can go a long way in protecting your business and your people from winter hazards.
Dangers of Working in Cold Weather
Winter storms inflict high costs on businesses, from disrupted supply chains to road conditions that impede employees and customers from reaching your location. Additionally, extreme cold weather often leads to an increase in workplace injuries. Optimum Safety Management estimates that between direct and indirect costs, employers will spend $120,000 for a single workplace injury.
Slips, trips, and falls are one of the most common workplace injuries, with 211,640 non-fatal cases in 2020 alone, according to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, your employees may face a variety of cold-weather hazards, including frostbite, hypothermia, trench foot, and other cold-related illnesses.
Depending on road conditions, your business may enact a winter safety plan, reminding employees of winter driving safety policies or telling non-vital workers to stay home until it is safe to come to the office. But for many employees, work must go on, despite severe winter weather. For these employees, in particular, winter hazards abound. Workers who are most vulnerable to the dangers of cold weather include:
- People who work outside most or all of the time, such as construction workers, lumber workers, utility line technicians, and agricultural workers
- Essential workers who may have to navigate through the elements such as mail carriers, social workers, first responders, and those in the transportation industry
- Service professionals who switch between working inside and outside during their shift, including plumbers, cable service technicians, and electricians
- Workers who labor in poorly insulated or non-heated areas such as a freezer storage
- Elderly workers and individuals with diabetes, hypertension, hypothyroidism, and other pre-existing health problems
While there is no OSHA standard specific to worker safety in cold weather environments, employers have a duty to provide workers with a place of employment free from recognized hazards—and that includes cold stress. The good news is, cold-related illnesses and injuries are often preventable. Having a plan for cold weather safety will help you avoid injuries to your people and reduce worker’s compensation claims, days lost, and other disruptions to business continuity.
With that in mind, here are five safety tips for working in cold weather that should apply to all businesses.
Cold Weather Safety Tip #1: Preventing and Responding to Incidents
Winter weather can be very serious and storms can intensify quickly, so it’s important to have a plan in place for workers who are exposed to the elements for part or all of their workday. Creating a plan for the cold months will help mitigate incidents and empower employees to react quickly if a problem arises.
If you don’t yet have a winter safety plan, consult OSHA’s winter weather preparedness guidelines as you develop your workplace safety plan. At a minimum, employers should:
- Train workers to recognize the symptoms of cold stress, as well as how to prevent common cold-related injuries and illnesses
- Emphasize the importance of monitoring themselves and coworkers for symptoms
- Encourage and/or provide warm clothing appropriate for cold, wet, and windy conditions
- Implement and enforce safe working practices, such as frequent breaks in warmed areas and scheduling routine maintenance during warmer months
- Define possible emergencies and establish protocols for responding to incidents and injuries efficiently
- Winterize all offices and worksites such as making sure sidewalks and parking lots are clear of snow and ice, applying de-icing materials, and supplying space heaters or generators
Cold Weather Safety Tip #2: Reinforce the Importance of Self-Care
Basic self-care is important for workers exposed to wind, rain, snow, and sleet. Make sure your employees know to stay well covered and nourished in order to maximize their body heat. They should wear multiple layers of loose-fitting clothing and should cover as much exposed skin as possible.
For individuals that will be exposed to cold temperatures for extended periods of time, nutritionists recommend eating foods that take longer to digest, as this helps raise your body temperature (a process called “thermogenesis”). Examples include bananas, ginger tea, oats, coffee, red meat, sweet potatoes, and squash. Many foods with healthy fats, proteins, and carbohydrates are complex and take longer to digest.
Winter workers should also drink more water than they typically do because we dehydrate more quickly in cold temperatures. Also, dehydration causes headaches, fatigue, and dizziness—all situations that could endanger colleagues who need to stay alert.
Help your employees implement self-care routines by planning some time indoors throughout the day. Whether that’s inside a building, shelter, or vehicle, have employees build in time to take a break from the chill. If possible, have workers use the “buddy system,” with teams of two looking out for each other.
Cold Weather Safety Tip #3: Plan Ahead With a Winter Emergency Kit
Do your employees travel on wet or snowy roads? If so, reference these winter driving safety tips for employees to make sure everyone is ready before getting behind the wheel. In addition, each company vehicle should be outfitted with a cold-weather safety kit containing items such as:
- Foil and/or wool blankets
- Chemical hand warmers
- Ice scraper
- Snow brush
- Extra batteries
- Road maps
- Bottled water
- Jumper cables
- Road flares or reflective warning triangles
- Basic first aid kit
- Dry layers of clothing and gloves or mittens
- Spare cell phone charger
- Rechargeable battery pack
We recommend keeping all items in a waterproof bag or clear plastic bin in the vehicle’s trunk. For a more extensive list of emergency supplies for your kit, the Department of Homeland Security has created a checklist for various situations. Regardless of what you include in your emergency kit, schedule a periodic restocking to keep supplies plentiful and in tip-top shape.
Employees are your greatest asset, so prepare now to keep them safe in winter weather, especially if they work outside for part or all of their shift.
Cold Weather Safety Tip #4: Arm Your Workers With a Safety Alarm
No matter how much training or preparation you do, bad things may still happen. Wrecks. Falls. Dehydration. Frostbite. What do your workers do in the worst-case scenario, such as when they’re lost, their freezing fingers barely work, and there’s a negative wind chill?
A safety alarm, like a lone worker safety app, keeps your business connected to employees when they need you most. You’ll want to pick one out that has been specifically built for life-threatening situations—this can especially help those regularly exposed to severe weather and dangerous working conditions.
It’s best if you can use an app that provides your employee’s exact location, and it should be able to call first responders to your worker within minutes. These types of emergency communication tools improve lone worker safety and could very well save lives.
Cold Weather Safety Tip #5: Stay Ahead of Cold-Related Injuries
Getting ahead of weather-related incidents is key to avoiding costly injuries that affect your workers’ well-being and hinder business continuity. Arm yourself and employees with knowledge on how to recognize, prevent, and treat the most common winter injuries.
Preventing slips and falls due to cold weather
Slips and falls are more likely when surfaces are wet or icy and can result in sprains, bruises, broken bones, and potentially more serious injuries. Take extra precautions to create safe worksites and prevent slips and falls—particularly during cold weather:
- Regularly inspect walking surfaces and replace or recoat any flooring that shows signs of wear and tear
- Spread salt on paved surfaces that become iced over
- Encourage employees to tread carefully and wear appropriate footwear with rubber treads
- Keep work areas free of clutter and in good working condition
- Provide adequate lighting to help employees better see potential hazards
Recognizing and responding to workplace incidents for suspected frostbite
According to the CDC, the most common sign of frostbite is redness or pain in any skin area. Other warning signs include numbness/loss of feeling, a white or grayish-yellow tint to the skin, or an abnormal feeling such as waxy or firmer skin. If one of your employees begins to exhibit symptoms or signs of frostbite, the CDC recommends the following:
- Move the worker into a warm room as quickly as you can
- Immerse the affected area in warm water, or warm the affected area using body heat
- Don’t allow the employee to walk on frostbitten feet or toes
- Don’t use a heating pad, radiator, or fireplace for warming
- Don’t massage the frostbitten area, as this may cause more damage
How to safeguard employees from hypothermia
The National Weather Service reminds us that the risk of hypothermia (a condition where your body can no longer produce heat) is not limited to negative temperatures but can also happen between temperatures of 30 and 50 degrees. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the most common signs of hypothermia are low body temperature, shivering, fatigue, confusion, drowsiness, slurred speech, or blue-tinted skin. If an employee begins exhibiting signs of hypothermia, the CDC recommends the following safety procedures.
- Request immediate medical attention
- Move the employee into a warm room or vehicle
- Remove wet clothing
- Give the employee warm beverages
- Once the employee’s body temperature has increased, keep them dry and wrapped in a warm blanket, making sure to include the head and neck.
- Of course, the best defense against conditions like hypothermia and frostbite is prevention, which starts with appropriate clothing, limiting time outside in wet and cold conditions, and closely monitoring the physical condition of oneself and others.
For prevention and first aid information on other cold-induced incidents like trench foot, carbon monoxide poisoning, and chilblains, consult the CDC website.
Identify Threats Before They Impact Your People
The best way to safeguard your people from cold-weather threats is to be prepared. Whether keeping remote employees informed of severe winter weather threats or reminding field workers of safety policies at the worksite, it’s critical to have a two-way mass notification system and real-time threat intelligence solution designed to help you identify at-risk employees and communicate effectively—no matter the situation.