Winter weather creates workplace hazards

Ice and snow can be beautiful, but on construction projects and other outdoor jobsites, winter can transform even the safest spaces into treacherous places. We know that we have to walk carefully, so we won’t slip and fall, but other winter workplace hazards aren’t always as obvious.

Frostbite is no fun

If you think the skin injury we know as frostbite is just an irritant, think again. It’s an insidious hazard that sneaks up on workers, leading to permanent skin damage, loss of fingers and toes, and sometimes, even lost limbs.

What we call frostbite is human tissue that dies when it’s exposed to extreme cold. The layer of skin directly below what we see is known as the epidermis, and it’s mainly made up of water. That makes it very susceptible to cold temperatures. If small white patches begin to appear on skin, it’s a sign that the moisture in the epidermis is already freezing, so immediate action needs to be taken. Workers 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 actually worsens the damage.

Ignoring the warning signs can quickly cause frostbite to become significantly worse. If a worker reaches the point where they can no longer feel their fingers or toes, they need immediate medical attention. If a finger or toe starts to turn black, they’ll probably lose it.

Proper prevention is the best way to avoid frostbite. Covering exposed skin and dressing in layers is critical. Workers cannot avoid frostbite by building up a tolerance to the cold or avoiding certain weather conditions. Humidity and wind are factors, and what may not seem like dangerous conditions could fool them.

Stay hydrated

Dehydration can be just as dangerous on the coldest days as it is in mid-summer. The extra layers of clothing workers wear can dehydrate them surprisingly quickly. When clothing holds in heat, the body perspires to cool down, and workers who fail to replenish what they lose to perspiration may become dehydrated. Others may be reluctant to drink as much as they need so they avoid those chilly walks to the port-o-john. The potential damage to the body from dehydration far exceeds any inconvenience.

Winter dehydration symptoms are identical to what happens in warm weather: perspiration, fatigue and dizziness, followed by severe cramping. By that point, workers may need medical attention.

Ensure that workers aware of the dangers of dehydration, that there is an adequate amount of drinking water on the jobsite and remind the workers to drink it.

Slip sliding away

Scaffolds, ladders, and similar surfaces also accumulate ice before frost appears on ground surfaces, because they area elevated, open, and allow cold air to circulate. Even when precipitation falls as rain or appears as dew, it may quickly change to ice as it reaches colder air near the ground.

Supervisors and safety professionals need to make judgments to consider how ice has affected 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 periodically to ensure that ice hasn’t begun to accumulate. If it does, either remove it, or keep workers away from the hazard.

Even if work is being done inside protected areas, 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 roofing materials become slick from ice accumulation or even a light frost.

Snow on the roof

The lightest, fluffiest snow becomes extremely heavy once it is packed together, and accumulations on roofs that are under construction may become dangerous. 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 snowfall into the structural design, but they also need to consider how the roof will handle expected snows 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 them to develop safety standards.

Drive carefully

One of the biggest winter dangers happens when workers are driving to and from work, traveling between worksites, taking a lunch break, or running out to get something needed on the site. Safety hazards include accidents on snow- and ice-covered roads, as well as the danger of exposure after a breakdown on a quiet road.

That’s why it’s so important to make sure vehicles are ready for the challenges of winter operation. In addition to normal maintenance items like oil changes, ensure that windshield washer systems are full of undiluted fluid (the 50/50 mix used in the summer freezes). Keeping the gas tank as full as possible minimizes the potential for condensation, and adds weight to rear-wheel-drive vehicles.

Drivers should travel with a scraper, snow brush, shovel, kitty litter (or other traction materials) and a basic winter survival kit that includes a blanket. A properly charged cell phone is also a valuable winter companion.

Beyond that, common sense applies. Pay attention to weather and road conditions, and know alternate routes you can use. 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 a vehicle for a few minutes every hour can produce enough heat to protect the occupants for many hours.

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