Every construction project presents safety hazards but winter working conditions adds specific safety concerns that should be considered. When working in bitter cold conditions, hazards such as slips and falls become more prevalent while high winds and extreme cold can cause life-threatening health conditions if workers are not properly prepared. The first step to working safely in winter conditions is to identify the hazard and then communicate how to prevent a safety incident that could occur from that hazard.
1. Prepare for Changing Conditions
Before the workday begins, everyone working outdoors should be aware of the forecasted weather conditions throughout the day and prepare to dress accordingly. With shorter daylight hours, weather can often change from cold mornings to afternoon sun to bitter wind and sleet later in the day. Cold temperatures with the addition of high winds will make heat leave your body quickly and dressing in layers will ensure you have options for changing weather conditions.
Along with dressing in layers to keep your core warm, special consideration should be given to hands, feet and head since that is where most of your body heat will be lost. “Hard hat liners are especially important since they will keep your head and ears warm without compromising the effectiveness of the hard hat,” states Bill Colson, general manager of Pretec Directional Drilling. They make a variety of liners, from those that wrap the hard hat rim and fold down to keep ears warm to full head liners that also cover the neck, mouth and nose. It’s important to remember, when choosing winter headware, to only use ones that will not compromise the effectiveness of the hard hat.
“Having the right personal protective equipment for the job is key,” says Colson. “Safety is number one on every job and the proper warm weather clothing will make sure your PPE performs as it should.” Colson also suggests composite toe boots rather than steel toe, warm socks and warm work gloves to prevent heat loss from feet and hands.
2. Prepare Your Vehicle
Take extra precautions to prepare your vehicle before winter begins. A well-stocked safety kit will ensure your safety during extreme winter conditions and help keep you comfortable while you wait for help should you happen to get stuck or stranded. Be sure to include non-perishable food, water, a blanket and a cell phone charger. Your winter safety kit should also include a window scraper with a brush and a small shovel and should remain in the vehicle throughout the season.
Once winter arrives, the colder temperatures mean you need to take a little extra time and care with your vehicle each day. Properly remove any snow and ice and warm your vehicle every morning and after sitting during the day. Warming your vehicle will make sure oil and other fluids are functioning properly before moving the vehicle. This is also important for large equipment and any other machinery that would cool off in between uses.
In addition to personal vehicle preparedness, there are a variety of precautions that can be taken with large equipment. Tracked vehicles should have cleats added to help prevent side slides should they find themselves sideways on a hillside. They should also have a proper cold weather oil mix in use prior to the winter temperatures arriving. This will take strain off the system and help with startups every morning.
3. Working Through Winter Conditions
While you may not be able to avoid working in bitter cold conditions, you can remain mindful of changing conditions and continually monitor your body’s reaction to ensure you stay safe. Frostbite can happen quickly before any symptoms are noticed. Stay aware of exposed skin and note any feelings of tingling, stinging or pain. As you work, take the necessary steps to prevent damaging skin tissue, particularly fingers, toes, ears and nose.
Hypothermia, when your body loses heat faster than it is replaced, is also a safety risk when working in bitter cold temperatures. Early warning signs of hypothermia such as shivering and fatigue may be more noticeable to others while other signs like confusion and disorientation may initially be recognized only by yourself. Early recognition of hypothermia will not only keep you safe but will also keep your team safe since your inability to think clearly can put others in danger.
Other typical safety hazards can be more prevalent during winter work. Slip and fall hazards are increased as ground freezes and ice forms. “Whenever you are changing your balance, the chance of a slip or fall is increased,” states Colson. “Equipment steps can become slick and maintaining three points of contact is especially important.”
Working through bitter cold conditions can be a challenge but if the correct precautions are taken and hazards identified, it can be done safely. Awareness and taking an extra time to prepare, dress appropriately, get in your equipment safely, and note the changing conditions of the weather and your body, will make sure you stay safe.