The cold temperatures, icy surfaces, and strong winds of winter can subject workers to a range of season-specific hazards on the job. Yet outdoor work in fields as varied as construction, snow cleanup, mining, farming, mail and package delivery, and public safety has to continue despite the weather.
Employers are obligated to protect employees affected by weather-related perils in the workplace, according to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA).
OSHA has no specific standards addressing cold-weather working conditions but notes that “employers have a responsibility to provide workers with employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards, including winter weather-related hazards, which are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to them,” according to the agency’s website.
Students seeking an online emergency management degree and aspiring to careers in occupational safety management should understand the importance of cold-weather work. Enrolling in Eastern Kentucky University’s Online Master of Science in Safety, Security and Emergency Management can provide the knowledge and skills essential to safeguarding the health and productivity of workers who engage in outdoor occupations during the winter.
OSHA training materials can be a useful reference for workers, employers, and safety managers who need winter safety tips for the workplace.
Common Winter Workplace Hazards
OSHA, in the section on winter weather on its website, outlines some of the common hazards and preparations necessary for safer winter working conditions, including:
- Cold stress. Cold stress can affect workers exposed to extreme cold or those who have to work in cold environments. Regions unused to winter weather can be particularly affected by near freezing temperatures.
Risk factors include wetness or dampness, inadequate clothing, and exhaustion; health conditions such as hypertension or diabetes; and poor physical conditioning.
Cold stress can precipitate a range of health emergencies, including:
- Frostbite, the freezing of skin and tissues. It can cause permanent damage and, in severe cases, amputation.
- Trenchfoot, a non-freezing foot injury caused by prolonged exposure to wet and cold.
- Hypothermia, when the body temperature drops below 95 degrees F.
Employers and safety managers are advised to recognize what OSHA calls “the environmental and workplace conditions that can lead to cold stress.” They should also instruct their workers in the symptoms of cold stress and the importance of wearing proper gear for the working conditions.
- Winter driving. Employers should be sure that workers are trained in winter driving and know how to maneuver on roads affected by snow and ice. Employers also should set safe driving policies, OSHA notes, and be sure that any mechanized equipment or vehicles necessary for the job are properly maintained.
- Slip-and-fall accidents. Falls are a hazard year-round. Nearly 700 workers died from falls in 2016 (the latest year for which figures are available) and more than 48,000 were injured badly enough to need days off work, according to data from the National Safety Council.
Employers should clear walking surfaces of snow and ice, OSHA says. If walking on snow or ice is unavoidable, workers should wear insulated and water-resistant boots with rubber treads. They also should take shorter steps and move at a slower pace so they can react more quickly.
- Downed power lines: Repairing or replacing downed or damaged power lines is a fundamental activity for utility workers, but one that is particularly hazardous. The moisture in snow can reduce the insulation in protective equipment and lead to electrocution, according to OSHA. Work should be done by qualified workers and supervisors who perform a hazard analysis before beginning the job.
Taking the Necessary Precautions
Preparation for working in the cold should be part of the regular training that employers or safety officers provide to employees. Dressing for the weather is the first line of defense against cold stress and the problems that often result. OSHA advises wearing:
- At least three layers of loose-fitting clothing. Layers provide better insulation than a single bulky item. Thermalwear holds in more body heat than cotton. Tight clothing reduces blood circulation, which the extremities of the body need to stay warm.
- A hat that also covers the ears. Hats reduce the amount of body heat that escapes from the head, keeping the body warmer.
- A knit mask to cover the face and mouth, if needed.
- Insulated gloves to protect the hands and insulated, waterproof boots to protect the feet.
Posting a notice on the bulletin board about wearing hats and gloves is not enough, Occupational Health and Safety magazine maintains.
“In addition to adding layers of clothing, staying warm during outdoor work also involves having the proper mindset, nutrition, and stamina to prevent hypothermia, frostbite, and other cold-related injuries,” the magazine says in “Winterizing Employees Who Work Outdoors.”
“Preparing mentally as well as physically helps employees to recognize the warning signs and effects of cold stress and their limitations.”
People perceive and tolerate cold differently, the article notes. Everyone adjusts to the weather and processes stimuli in their own way. Other factors that can affect susceptibility to the cold include:
- Regional differences. People used to cold climates are likely to acclimate faster to the onset of winter than those who have little experience with extreme cold.
- Age, body type, and health issues. Cold may cause some people, especially as they age, to shiver and experience slower reactions without realizing that they need to stop work and take a break in a warm place.
- One of the ways the body responds to cold is to feel hunger. Food provides fuel, which warms the body. Proper nutrition and hydration can help workers withstand cold-weather conditions better and also ward off fatigue. Small high-protein snacks are more efficient than one or two large meals.
An online emergency management degree such as Eastern Kentucky University’s Online Master of Science in Safety, Security and Emergency Management includes coursework in safety principles that can help students understand the importance of OSHA training materials and safe working conditions for those whose jobs require being out in the cold.
Eastern Kentucky University’s Master of Science in Safety, Security and Emergency Management (MSSSEM)
Eastern Kentucky University’s online MSSSEM program offers a broad foundation in topics important to aspiring safety managers. Students can choose from a Multidisciplinary Track or a concentration in occupational safety, emergency management, or corporate security operations.
The program prepares students to sit for their Associate Safety and Health Manager (ASHM) certification and the Certified Safety and Health Manager (CSHM) exam. For more information, contact Eastern Kentucky University today.
Winter hazards: OSHA
OSHA training materials: OSHA
Workplace hazards: OSHA
Slip-and-fall: National Safety Council
Cold Stress: OSHA
Dressing for the cold: OSHA
Winterizing employees: Occupational Health and Safety