Three Winter Worksite Safety Dangers

WinterDangersWinter conditions create a variety of safety challenges on construction projects. Some of the more common examples include a significant increase in the likelihood of slip and fall accidents and tissue damage caused by frostbite. But some of the hazards that arrive with winter conditions aren’t quite as obvious. Let’s a take a closer look at three dangers that supervisors sometimes miss.

Icy Scaffolds and Ladders

Just as bridges freeze more quickly than the roads leading to them, scaffolds, ladders, and similar surfaces typically begin to accumulate ice well before ground surfaces. The reason is the same ‘ they’re elevated, open, and allow cold air to circulate around them. Even when precipitation is falling as rain, colder air near the ground may cause ice to form. In addition, early-morning dew or rainfall can turn to ice if the temperature drops.

No two scaffolding installations or sites are exactly the same, so there’s no simple standard for determining when ice accumulation has reached a point at which workers will be endangered. We recommend regular scaffold inspections to assess the overall condition of the scaffold, its installation, and its safety features. But even if a scaffold has been green-tagged, the presence of ice can create a serious hazard. So if weather conditions are conducive to ice formation, inspect the scaffolding periodically to ensure that ice hasn’t begun to accumulate. If you notice that ice is forming, you should either remove it, or remove the people from the hazard.

Remember that workers who use the scaffold to access other parts of the jobsite may also be placed in danger by ice. The same holds true for ladders. Even if the work is being done inside protected areas of the structure, ladders used to access those areas may create a hazard. Climbing down into excavations can be just as dangerous when a ladder is icy or wet. Finally, many types of roof materials can also become very slick from ice accumulation, or even from a light frost.

Snow on the Roof

Any kid who has built a snowman can testify that even the lightest, fluffiest snow becomes extremely heavy once it is packed together. While snowmen rarely present a danger to workers, accumulations of snow on roofs that are under construction are a different story. The finished structure may be able to handle a significant amount of snow, but that capacity may be less during construction.

Ideally, the architects and engineers have already factored the load of snowfalls into the structural design, but it may be a wise idea to verify with them that the roof can 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.

How Dry I Am

Most supervisors recognize the importance of keeping a supply of water nearby on summer days, and most craftspeople know that they have to remain hydrated to work productively and safely.

But staying hydrated is just as important when the outside temperature plummets. Even though workers don’t have to contend with high temperatures and blazing sunlight, the extra layers of clothing they wear to stay warm can also dehydrate them surprisingly quickly. After all, that clothing is holding in heat, so the body perspires to cool down. If the worker fails to replenish that fluid, he may become dehydrated.

The symptoms of winter dehydration are identical to what happens in warm weather. People first start to perspire. Next, they typically experience fatigue and dizziness. If they ignore those symptoms, the next step is usually severe cramping. By then, they’re usually unable to continue working and may even require medical attention.

Sometimes, craftspeople avoid liquid in the winter because they don’t want to make multiple trips to the port-o-john and deal with all those layers of clothing, or they don’t want to walk away from the heat sources that are making them more comfortable. While that hesitation is understandable, the potential damage to the body from dehydration far exceeds any inconvenience.

Supervisors should 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.

Mike Martin is a Safety AdvisorĀ for Safety Management Group, an Indianapolis-based professional service organization that provides nationwide workplace safety consulting, training, staffing, program planning, and implementation. Information is available at or by calling 800.435.8850.

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