With winter in full swing, every OPCMIA member working outdoors should take extra precautions when the weather is cold and icy — and ensure that your employer is giving you all the preparation and protection you need.
First and foremost, there is an increased risk of slips and falls any time the ground is wet, snowy or icy. More insidiously, cold temperatures, combined with increased wind speed to lower the wind chill factor, cause heat to leave the body more quickly, potentially putting you at risk of cold stress. The most common types of cold stress are:
- Hypothermia. This is when body temperature drops to 95°F or less. Mild symptoms include being alert but shivering. Moderate to severe symptoms include an end to shivering, confusion, slurred speech, slower heart rate and breathing and loss of consciousness. Without prompt treatment, hypothermia can kill you.
- Frostbite. This is what happens when hands, feet and other body tissues freeze. It can even occur at temperatures above freezing, due to wind chill. Symptoms include numbness, reddened skin, gray and white patches in the skin, unusual firmness in the skin, and blistering. Without prompt treatment, amputation can result.
- Trench Foot (also known as Immersion Foot). This is a non-freezing injury to the foot caused by lengthy exposure to the wet and cold. It can occur with air temperatures as high as 60°F if your feet are constantly wet. Symptoms include redness, swelling, numbness and blisters.
Any of these conditions can be caused by dressing improperly, persistent exposure to wet clothing due to sweat or other factors, and exhaustion. To avoid cold stress, there are several critical steps your employers should take. You should be aware of what these steps are, because if they are not being followed, you should contact your shop steward, union representative or business manager to enforce the terms of our collective bargaining agreements and U.S Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations.
Employers have a responsibility to provide workers with a place of employment free from recognized hazards, including those stemming from winter weather. To fulfill these obligations, employers should:
- Provide training on how to identify, prevent and treat cold stress hazards like those described above, and how to deal with slippery roads and surfaces.
- Use engineering controls to protect workers from winter weather-related hazards. These can include providing radiant heaters in work areas, erecting barriers that block cold winds, and using aerial lifts or ladders to safely apply de-icing materials to roofs.
- Gradually introduce workers to the cold, and schedule more frequent breaks in warm areas when temperatures drop.
- Prevent slips, trips and falls by clearing snow and ice from walking surfaces and spreading deicer as quickly as possible after a winter storm. When walking on snow or ice is unavoidable, workers should be trained to wear footwear that has good traction and insulation, and to take short steps and walk at a slower pace.
- Provide proper protective clothing where possible. At a minimum, workers should wear at least three layers of loose-fitting clothing with an inner layer of wool, silk or synthetic to keep moisture away from the body, a hat that covers the ears, insulated gloves, insulated and waterproof boots, and a knit mask to cover the face and mouth in extreme cold.
The U.S Occupational Safety and Health Administration offers the following winter weather safety tips:
- Your employer should ensure that you know the symptoms of cold stress.
- Monitor your physical condition and that of your coworkers.
- Dress appropriately for the cold.
- Stay dry in the cold because moisture or dampness from sweating or other causes can increase the rate of heat loss from the body.
- Keep extra clothing (including underwear) handy in case you get wet and need to change.
- Drink warm sweetened fluids (no alcohol)
Use proper engineering controls, safe work practices, and personal protective equipment provided by your employer.