Back when I worked on a tree crew, I remember one particular January with a higher-than-average number of 10- to 15-degree F days and knee-deep snows. I couldn’t seem to add enough layers. Fortunately, the only lasting scar I carried away from that winter was a newfound love of coffee, after a sales arborist brought me a heavily sweetened but hot cup of dark roast to warm my bones.
It’s no surprise that any vocation involving chain saws, tree climbing and 100-plus horsepower chippers has a high potential for injury. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 865 fatal and 441 nonfatal incidents in the arboriculture field between 2001 and 2017. The top four categories contributing to these were climber falls, falling trees, falling branches and indirect contact with electrical current. It’s not a far leap to imagine how snow, ice and numb digits could exacerbate any of these categories, so we can deduce that a profession already fraught with peril becomes even riskier in the winter months.
Looking beyond the green industry to the American workforce as a whole, the BLS notes 24,460 injuries related to snow, ice or sleet in 2017 alone.
In addition to injuries, cold-related illnesses such as hypothermia, frostbite and trench foot can be dangers to keep in mind. These stresses are preventable and treatable, but they can be deadly if ignored.
Hypothermia happens when body temperature is lost faster than it is generated. It’s normally associated with cold temperatures, but hypothermia can occur even when it’s warmer than 40 degrees F, especially if the person has gotten wet from rain or perspiration.
A victim’s thinking is affected when body temperatures get too low. Therefore, he or she may not make the wisest decisions for their own well-being. Crews should be attuned to shivering, slurred speech, clumsiness, exhaustion and memory loss in their colleagues when working in winter conditions. If hypothermia is suspected, seek medical attention immediately. In the meantime, get the affected person into a warm structure or vehicle. Encourage them to change out of damp clothes and sip a hot beverage if they can. Use blankets or extra jackets to warm their core temperature.
In severe cases of hypothermia, the person may become unconscious. If there’s no sign of a pulse, one person should administer CPR while others continue to warm him or her with blankets or dry clothing.
The body’s extremities – nose, ears, fingers, toes – are most prone to frostbite. Frostbite can cause permanent damage or even lead to amputation, so it’s important to recognize and treat it as soon as possible.
Since the impacted extremity may be numb, the victim may not even realize he or she is frostbitten, but the skin may exhibit an uncharacteristic grayish-yellow or white color, and may feel firm or waxy to the touch.
As with hypothermia, get medical care for the person quickly. Get them to a warm place and, if possible, immerse the impacted part of the body into comfortably warm water, or use skin-on-skin contact to restore heat. Don’t try to warm a frostbitten extremity with a stove, engine or anything else that may burn the skin.
Trench foot, or immersion foot, occurs when a person’s feet are exposed to cold and wet conditions for long periods of time or are actually immersed in water for an extended period. While less likely among tree care professionals than, say, commercial fishermen, there are situations where arboriculture workers could be at risk. For instance, if a crew member is operating a chipper all day on ground saturated by melted snow, trench foot is certainly a possibility.
Trench foot can occur at temperatures as high as 60 degrees F.
Symptoms of this disorder include tingling and itching, swelling, burning and, in severe cases, blisters on the feet. Trench foot can be quite painful. As it progresses, skin tissue can begin to die, and gangrene is something to be watchful of.
As with other cold-related illnesses, it’s important to get the afflicted worker to a warm, dry location. Feet should be warmed and dried as thoroughly as possible and slightly elevated. Seek medical attention quickly.
During the 2001 to 2017 period mentioned previously, the BLS reported 53 fatal and 21 nonfatal transportation incidents in the arboriculture industry. A few steps added to regular vehicle inspections can keep vehicles running safely during the cold months.
Check windshield-washer reservoirs. Slush and salt splashed onto the windshield can drop visibility to zero in a hurry. Top off the reservoir often with a quality, no-freeze windshield-washer fluid, and keep extra in the truck.
One may not think of floor mats as safety features, but those can be useful for keeping the space in front of gas and brake pedals free and clear of slush and mud. Ensure that your fleet’s floor mats fit properly and aren’t too worn. An ill-fitting floor mat can shift, potentially interfering with accelerator or brake operation.
Colder temperatures mean lower tire pressures. Before pulling out of the lot each morning, check tire pressure and look for any visible damage to tires. Tread should be one-sixteenth of an inch or greater. If tire-traction devices such as snow chains are commonly needed in your area, make sure those are in good condition and that crews are comfortable with how and when they’re to be employed.
Each vehicle in the fleet should contain a first-aid kit and basic roadside-emergency gear such as flares, booster cables and a tow rope year-round. In the winter months, add a small snow shovel and ice scraper, as well as sand or cat litter for traction in the snow.
A blanket or two should be in every vehicle, and heat packets can be indispensable when it comes to the treatment of frostbite or trench foot, or when placed between the thighs or against the stomach in an effort to warm a hypothermia victim. These do have a shelf life, so be sure to replace them at the start of winter.
A basic, battery-operated NOAA weather radio can be a good way for employees to monitor the approach of winter storms while in the field.
Winter days are short, so flashlights with spare batteries – while useful year-round – can be especially lifesaving from December through February.
Laminated copies of OSHA’s Cold Stress Quick Card placed in each vehicle can provide an overview of the symptoms and treatment for common types of cold stress. This free resource is downloadable as a pdf online.
Workers, too, can carry a few items to reduce their risk of winter injury; a change or two of socks, gloves or mittens, a warm hat and a thermos of hot coffee or tea can help. The adage “cotton kills,” often shared among backcountry recreational enthusiasts, also applies to outdoor professionals. Cotton holds moisture and provides little insulation once it is soaked, whereas materials such as wool or technical synthetics dry quickly and maintain some level of insulation when wet.
Insulated and waterproof boots with good traction are a must. Gaiters that prevent snow and slush from entering boot tops also can be a good idea in deep snow.
Extra drinking water and some high-calorie food options are wise to have on hand, either as part of the vehicle kit or with personal gear.
Investment in time
Winter can be a hectic time for tree care, as crews scramble to stay ahead of wind, snow and ice damage to clients’ properties, but making an allowance of a few extra minutes during the span of the day can be vital. For instance, taking time to let windshields fully defrost first thing in the morning is better than a driver peeking through a porthole in the frost. Likewise, crews should be encouraged to get in the trucks or a building to take warm-up breaks periodically, if possible. Such efforts can counter the effects of cold stress.
For safety meetings, consider inviting a medical professional to discuss hypothermia, frostbite and trench foot, or schedule a winter-driving-skills practice session in an empty parking lot during the first snowfall.
If you live in an area where overnight temperatures drop into the single digits, take time at the end of the day to top off your fleet’s fuel levels. This reduces the risk of ice in the tank and fuel lines.
In a profession that has more than its share of risks throughout the year, winter conditions can magnify those factors, as well as create new ones. Professionals who take the time to consider those seasonal dangers and plan for their prevention can save their crews and their companies a lot of pain when the temperatures plummet.
Phillip Meeks is a forester and an educator in the fields of agriculture and natural resources in southwest Virginia.