As winter approaches, many US employees will be working outdoors in cold, harsh conditions. For employers, cold is a hazard that can’t be ignored
—the OSH Act requires all employers to provide a safe workplace and take steps to eliminate recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm.
As we look at ways to combat cold stress, it helps to keep in mind OSHA’s hierarchy of controls,
which applies to all workplace hazards. From most effective to least effective, these controls should be used to control all workplace safety hazards:
- Eliminate the hazard
- Substitute a non-hazardous alternative
- Use engineering controls to isolate workers from a hazard
- Use administrative controls to change schedules, work practices
- Provide adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for workers
Here is a colorful rendering of the hierarchy from OSHA.gov:
How Does Hierarchy of Controls Apply to Cold?
For cold, the first, most effective controls are difficult if not impossible to implement. You can eliminate or substitute away a cold hazard by moving the job inside. For emergency medical technicians, firefighters, law enforcement, environmental professionals, sanitation workers, maintenance employees, outdoor electricians, and so many others—working inside all winter simply isn’t feasible.
Moving down the hierarchy pyramid, we can consider some engineering controls that can help reduce the probability of a cold stress incident at your workplace.
Engineering controls to combat cold stress
Use radiant heating systems to warm the work area or provide a warm spot for employees to take breaks, if possible.
Shield work areas from wind. Wind is a major contributor to cold stress. Cold temperatures, when combined with high wind speed create the wind-chill effect. When possible, block the wind with a screen or a vehicle to lessen the impact of the wind-chill.
Insulate equipment handles. If employees use handles on machinery or tools to do their work, wrap the handles in insulating material to make them warmer to work with. Touching freezing cold metal parts can contribute to frostbite.
In addition to the engineering controls above, some simple administrative steps and best work practices will also help protect employees.
Work practices and administrative controls to combat cold stress
Schedule work for warmest part of the day. You may not be able to control the weather, but you can control when to expose employees to the elements. When possible, schedule outdoor work to be completed during warmer and less windy parts of the day to protect employees.
Stay hydrated. In winter, lower humidity causes sweat to evaporate faster, contributing to dehydration. Employees should drink warm, sweet fluids like sports drinks frequently throughout the day. Avoid alcohol and caffeinated beverages like coffee, tea, and soda.
Stay dry. Moisture on clothing and sweat on the body can contribute to hypothermia and trench foot. For certain jobs, changing into dry socks or other dry clothes may be needed during the day.
Take frequent breaks in warm areas. Even for critical jobs like the ones listed above—frequent breaks are needed to warm up the body and keep you working strong all day. While we tell employees to take frequent breaks, it is important that employers make it known that longer breaks are acceptable in cold conditions.
Train managers and employees to recognize and react to the symptoms of conditions like frostbite, hypothermia, trench foot, and others. Symptoms that should not be ignored include skin redness, numbness, tingling, blisters, shivering, loss of coordination, dilated pupils, confusion, stiffness, loss of consciousness, and slowed breathing.
Use the buddy system. Employees should work in groups or pairs so that they can monitor each other for symptoms of cold stress. This helps ensure that an employee who is affected will receive fast, proper treatment if needed.
While PPE should be your last resort for workplace safety, choosing the right PPE can make a big difference in how employees deal with cold on the job.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to combat cold stress
When the temperature drops, more and more of the body’s energy is used to keep body warm. To do this, the body shifts heat away from the extremities (hands, feet, arms, legs)—and moves it to the core of body to stay warm. This contributes to extremities cooling faster, leading to frostbite, hypothermia, and trench foot.
Dress in layers. We may not think of a pair of thermal long-johns as traditional PPE, but you will be glad you put them on.
Wear a hat or hood. Just like Mom always said—you lose most of your body heat through your head. So cover it up! Covering your face with a knit mask will also cut down on how much of your skin is exposed directly to the cold or wind.
Wear moisture resistant materials like wool, silk, or synthetic materials that naturally keep moisture away from the body.
Wear insulated, water-resistant gloves and footwear If working in rainy, wet, or snowy conditions.
If wearing battery-operated clothing like heated jackets or socks, keep in mind that these items may not be permitted in workspace that must be kept “intrinsically safe”.
To read more about the hazards of cold stress, and how to respond to incidents of frostbite, hypothermia, or trenchfoot, see OSHA’s Cold Stress page here.
Further reading on cold stress
NIOSH also provides a page of recommendations and resources about cold stress, here.
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