Cold-Weather Work Safety Precautions

It is important for employers and employees to understand appropriate measures for protecting the individual in the workplace during cold weather. Photos by Robert Knight, Timberland Tree Service, Ltd., courtesy of the author.

In cold-weather conditions, we tend to focus heavily on the care and operation of machinery, sometimes forgetting the importance of safe cold-weather work practices for the operators. It is important for employers and employees to understand appropriate measures for protecting the individual in the workplace during cold weather, recognizing it as one of the many facets of workplace safety.

Driving

Adding winter tires or using tire chains will help reduce the likelihood of a crash in winter driving conditions. The cold-weather rubber compound and tread patterns of winter tires aid in traction on snow or ice. Other precautionary measures include regular maintenance, properly defrosting windows and making sure snow and ice is cleared from the windows, lights and roof of the vehicle.

Remind employees to drive for the conditions, ensuring sufficient distance between vehicles and accounting for the increased braking distance under winter conditions. Emphasize driving techniques to mitigate accidents in icy conditions. If you are frequently operating in winter conditions, consider additional training for employees to enhance their winter driving skills.

Equipment

Remember to de-ice and clear snow from equipment, especially on areas where employees may stand. Exercise caution when using tracked machinery that may be prone to sliding or rollover in winter conditions.

Certain accessories allow for equipment to be improved for cold-weather operation. The installation of anti-slip material can help prevent slip or fall injuries. Existing anti-slip material should be regularly inspected to assess sufficiency of remaining traction surfaces. Routinely assess areas for ice buildup, which could be salted and/or sanded, or on which the ice could be removed.

Clothing and gear

Make sure clothing is appropriate for the weather conditions. Layering of clothing is an ideal approach, as it allows for better regulation of body temperature; workers can remove a layer if they begin to sweat or can add more layers if they begin to chill. Layers should include a moisture-wicking base layer, i.e., long johns and/or a long-sleeved shirt; a mid-layer made from wool, down or fleece; and an outer shell of waterproof and windproof materials. Cotton should be avoided in wet conditions, as cotton wicks heat from the body.

Be aware of the effects of tight clothing or gear on limiting blood flow to extremities, such as tightly laced boots or climbing saddles. A well-insulated, correctly sized pair of boots will go a long way in preventing cold injury. Boots should be appropriately sized to accommodate wool socks. DIY boot insulators can be fashioned from a repurposed vehicle sunshade by cutting the material in the shape of the boot’s insole, then layering the sunshade material under the insole, thus helping to prevent heat loss. To prevent slips and falls, use boots with rough treads and/or added grips for better traction.

There is some variation in studies on the efficacy of gloves versus mittens. Overall, mittens appear to be of greater value in maintaining warmth at lower temperatures. Avoid the temptation to use bare hands if thin gloves still allow for fine manual dexterity and could be worn as a second layer beneath mittens.

Protective eyewear may be hindered by fogging or ice crystallization. Selection of a face covering that mitigates condensation when wearing protective eyewear is a good option. A helmet liner or skull cap can be used to retain warmth while wearing a helmet.

Reduce the risk of cold injury, including frostbite, by covering exposed skin.

Management should aid employees in their selection of proper clothing for cold-weather work. This is beneficial to both the health and wellness of your employees, as well as decreasing the likelihood of injury and delays in work.

Workshop

Prevent the need for field-based maintenance by completing maintenance tasks in your yard or workshop/garage. This will give employees a chance to warm up and will allow for equipment to be ready upon arrival at the job site. Undertaking equipment maintenance at the end of the workday can help prevent employees from starting at the first job site already cold.

If you are heating your shop, make sure there is adequate ventilation when using certain heater types. Make sure smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors are functioning properly, and do not run trucks indoors without proper ventilation, such as a dedicated indoor-vehicle-exhaust-removal system.

Kneeling or lying on a closed-cell foam pad can help reduce conductive heat loss to the ground or machinery.

Apply sand or salt in exterior heavy-use areas, including driveways and sidewalks.

Health and wellness

Stretching before work is useful in reducing musculoskeletal injuries and pain that may be exacerbated in cold weather. Encourage employees to stay nourished and well hydrated to help maintain warmth throughout the day. Adding honey to warm, caffeine-free tea is a good practice, as the additional calories in honey will help employees stay warm.

It is important to have a good understanding of the early signs and symptoms of cold injuries, including frostbite and hypothermia. Early recognition of the signs and symptoms of these conditions and timely intervention is essential in avoiding serious injury.

Photokeratitis, or “snow blindness,” is caused by reflection of UV rays from snow into the eyes. Photokeratitis can be prevented by wearing safety glasses that are specifically tinted to prevent UV injury.

There is an important balance between under-activity and over-activity, as both can increase the risk of cold-related injuries. Be sure to maintain some movement while working, such as tapping of or lightly moving around in the bucket when working from an aerial-lift platform. Operators should take a break from the bucket occasionally to walk around.

First aid

Employers and employees should be trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of cold-related injuries and know the necessary abatement procedures. Make sure those trained to administer first aid on your crews are aware of cold-weather injuries and proper management procedures for when an injury occurs.

Collaboration between a TCIA Certified Treecare Safety Professional (CTSP) and a qualified first-aid trainer will be helpful in creating an applicable training program for employees. Make sure to express your interest in practical cold-injury-prevention measures in the training process.

Standard first-aid kits should be supplemented with the supplies appropriate for the environment and conditions in which crews are working. Cold-weather first-aid supplies should include dry clothing and a thermal/space blanket. Storage of these supplies should be in a warm part of the vehicle, not in an exterior compartment. Consideration should be given to having an available thermos containing warm fluids for all shifts when working in cold weather.

Job site

If there is a heavy snowpack, shovel out the work area, and a good, clean path from the tree to the equipment will help reduce the risk of slips and falls and provide an escape route during tree-felling operations. Clear around the base of the tree to assess the tree for any defects or hazards that may impact the decision to climb the tree.

Chain saws should be carried with the bar and chain behind to reduce the risk of laceration in the event of a slip or fall. Be sure to take note of felling hazards in cold-weather conditions. For instance, it is known that trees are at a higher tendency to barber chair in freezing conditions.

As daylight hours are shorter during the winter, attention should be paid to local daylight hours, and work should be avoided if there is insufficient light near dawn and dusk.

If there is a heavy snowpack, clear around the base of the tree to assess the tree for any defects or hazards that may impact the decision to climb the tree.

Administrative considerations

Employers should be cognizant of all regulations governing safe work practices. There may be additional standards or regulations relating to cold-weather work in your specific region. In Canada, the Canada Labour Code requires employers to develop and implement measures to monitor and control thermal stress. Cold-weather thresholds often are determined using the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists’ Threshold Limit Values for cold stress. Occupational advisements for cold-weather work frequently list warm-up periods as a valuable practice in injury prevention. A practical suggestion for arboriculture is rotating which employees are responsible for certain tasks so that all employees have an opportunity for a warm-up period. Consider increasing break times to allow for all members of the crew to have a warm-up period.

Wind chill is an important consideration in determining the necessary precautions for the safety of employees on any given day. Wind chill factor accounts for the effects of both cold air and the wind, which together contribute to greater heat loss.

It is known that vibration-induced-white-finger (VWF) and hand-arm-
vibration syndrome (HAVS) can be intensified by cold weather. Anti-vibration gloves can help reduce vibration-related injuries.

Prevention is key, and postponing work may be a necessary step in preventing cold-weather injuries in the workplace. Alternatively, consider delaying the start time of crews to begin the workday under warmer temperatures and/or reduced wind chill.

Conclusion

Employers and employees should be aware of the significant risks related to cold-weather work conditions. Training in the identification of cold-weather hazards and mitigation of potential injuries is important in providing a safe work environment. State or provincial occupational-safety documents on cold-weather work should be referenced when reviewing and revising your company’s safe-work policies and practices.

Alex Martin is an ISA Board Certified Master Arborist (BCMA) and owner of Ironwood Urban Forestry Consulting, a first-year TCIA member company based in Winnipeg, Canada, and attends the University of British Columbia’s Bachelor of Urban Forestry program.

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