Five Winter Workplace Dangers

By Safety Management Group

WinterDangersWhen the temperatures drop, snow begins to fall, and ice starts to form, construction projects and other outdoor worksites can be more dangerous. While most of us recognize the inherent danger caused by slips and falls, there are other winter weather hazards that we may not immediately consider. We’ll examine five in this article.

Winter driving

Whether they’re driving to and from work, traveling between worksites, taking a lunch break, or running out to get something needed on the site, most construction workers spend a significant amount of time in their vehicles. During the winter months, that can create additional safety hazards, from accidents on snow- and ice-covered roads to the danger of exposure after a breakdown on a lonely road.

The first step in preventing against these hazards is making sure the vehicles themselves are ready for the challenges of winter operation. In addition to all of the normal maintenance items like oil changes, in the winter it’s especially important to ensure that windshield washer systems are full of undiluted fluid (the 50/50 mix used in the summer can freeze). Keeping the gas tank as full as possible minimizes the potential for condensation in the tank, and adds much-needed weight to rear-wheel-drive vehicles.

Drivers would be wise to travel with a scraper, snow brush, shovel, kitty litter (or other traction materials) and a basic winter survival kit that includes a blanket. A cell phone is also a valuable winter companion (especially if it’s properly charged).

Beyond that, common sense applies. Pay attention to weather and road conditions, and know alternate routes you can use if your first choice becomes impassable. Give yourself extra time, so you don’t have to hurry, and stay alert. If you encounter trouble outside populated areas, stay with your vehicle. Open a window slightly to provide a good supply of fresh air, and make sure your tailpipe isn’t plugged with snow. Running your vehicle for a few minutes every hour can produce enough heat to protect you for many hours.

Icy work surfaces

Bridges freeze more quickly than the roads leading to them, and scaffolds, ladders, and similar surfaces also accumulate ice well before ground surfaces. Just like bridges, they’re elevated, open, and allow cold air to circulate around them. Even when precipitation falls as rain or appears as dew, colder air near the ground may cause ice to form.

There’s no single standard for deciding when ice accumulation has reached a point at which workers will be endangered. Supervisors and safety professionals will need to make judgments that consider the overall condition of the ladder or scaffold, its installation, and its safety features. If no ice is visible but weather conditions are conducive to ice formation, inspect the scaffolding periodically to ensure that ice hasn’t begun to accumulate. If it does, either remove it, or remove the people from the hazard.

Even if work is being done inside protected areas of the structure, ladders or scaffolds used to access those areas may create a hazard. Climbing down into excavations may be dangerous when a ladder is icy or wet. Many types of roofing materials also become very slick from ice accumulation or a light frost.

Rooftop snow

If you’ve ever built a snowman or been in a snowball fight, you know that even the lightest, fluffiest snow becomes extremely heavy once it is packed together. While snowmen and snowballs are rarely dangers on worksites, accumulations of snow on roofs that are under construction are a different story. Even if the finished structure can handle a significant amount of snow, that capacity may be less during construction.

Architects and engineers generally factor the load of snowfalls into the structural design, but it’s a good idea to verify how the roof will handle expected snowfalls during the construction phase. If there’s an issue with the weight of snow, or if winter conditions weren’t anticipated in the original schedule, work with the architects and engineers to develop safety standards.

Frost takes a bite

You may think of the skin injury known as frostbite as a mere matter of discomfort, but this dangerous hazard can cause permanent damage to skin, and can even lead to the loss of limbs and appendages.

In basic terms, frostbite is the destruction of tissue caused by exposure to extreme cold. The epidermis, which is the layer directly beneath the exposed skin, is mostly water, so it is easily affected by extremely cold temperatures. Frostbite’s first sign is small patches of white on the skin, where the underlying moisture has already frozen. At that point, you need to move to a warmer area and allow the skin to gradually return to its normal temperature. Rubbing frostbitten skin, putting hot compresses on the affected area, or running warm water on it can worsen the damage.

Failing to respond to those early warnings means frostbite can become significantly worse. If you reach the point where you can no longer feel your fingers or your toes, you need to obtain immediate medical attention. If your finger or toe starts to turn black, you’ll probably lose it.

Proper prevention is the best way to avoid frostbite. Covering exposed skin and dressing in layers is critical. You can’t avoid frostbite by building up a tolerance to the cold or avoiding certain weather conditions. Humidity and wind play key roles in the likelihood of developing frostbite, and what may not seem like dangerous conditions could fool you.

Lack of fluids

We think of dehydration primarily as a summertime problem, but it can be just as dangerous on the coldest days. The extra layers of clothing workers wear to stay warm can dehydrate them surprisingly quickly. The clothing holds in heat, so the body perspires to cool down. Workers who fail to replenish that fluid may become dehydrated. Others may not want to drink as much to limit frosty walks to the port-o-john. The potential damage to the body from dehydration far exceeds any inconvenience.

The symptoms of winter dehydration are identical to what happens in warm weather: perspiration, fatigue and dizziness, followed by severe cramping. By then, workers are usually unable to continue working and may even require medical attention.

Supervisors need to treat cold weather just as they do hot days. Make workers aware of the dangers of dehydration, ensure that there is an adequate amount of drinking water on their jobsites, and encourage them to drink it.

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