WHEN THE WEATHER OUTSIDE IS FRIGHTFUL, WORKER SAFETY BECOMES AN ISSUE

snowman

It’s one thing to be sitting by the fire sipping hot cocoa and watching fat snowflakes drift by the window. It’s quite another to be working outside when the mercury has plummeted and there’s little in the way of warmth or shelter.

Jack Frost is doing a lot more than nipping at workers’ noses. People who work in cold environments aren’t just uncomfortable—they can experience major health problems. Some of the more serious threats are:

  • Hypothermia. When the body loses heat more quickly than it can produce it, body temperature can become abnormally low. Symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, fatigue, confusion, slowed pulse and breathing and, in extreme cases, loss of consciousness and death.
  • Frostbite. Frostbite is an injury caused by actual freezing of parts of the body. It most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers or toes. Frostbite damage is more than skin deep; severe frostbite can affect muscles and even bone. Damage done by frostbite can be permanent and in severe cases might require amputation. Frostbite’s less dangerous cousin, frostnip, occurs when the top layers of skin tissue freeze. It typically affects cheeks, earlobes, fingers and toes and generally does not result in permanent damage.
  • Falls. Snow and ice removal operations often are performed under extreme weather conditions and workers who are experienced in doing similar work in good weather might be dangerously inexperienced when conditions are less than ideal. Employees can be seriously injured or killed if they slip and fall while performing snow or ice removal from rooftops or other building structures.

Both the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration offer some good advice for employers looking to help protect their workers from the dangers of the cold, including the following:

  • In colder regions, try to get maintenance and repair jobs done during warmer months, and when jobs must be completed in cold weather, schedule the work for the warmest part of the day.
  • Reduce the physical demands of workers in cold weather by using relief workers or assigning extra workers for long, demanding jobs.
  • Provide hot drinks and warm sheltered areas for workers during their break periods.
  • Stress the importance of proper dress (layer, layer, layer).
  • Train workers on staying safe in the cold; for example, provide information about the symptoms of cold-related health threats, appropriate first aid, use of personal protective equipment, importance of monitoring one another for symptoms of cold-weather health problems and how to seek treatment.
  • For snow removal jobs, use fall protection equipment and have a plan for rescuing fallen workers. Better yet, prevent falls by using snow removal methods that don’t involve workers climbing onto roofs.

Not only does OSHA want employees to stay safe and warm when working in cold temperatures, the agency requires it. Although there’s no specific standard covering winter weather dangers, employees are protected by the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which requires employers to provide them with a workplace free from recognized hazards. 

OSHA’s penalties for violating the General Duty Clause can be stiffer than gloveless hands in February, ranging as high as $7,000 for serious violations and up to $70,000 for willful or repeated violations. Violations are considered to be serious if they correspond to conditions or practices where there’s a substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result unless the employer is, with the exercise of reasonable diligence, unaware of the presence of the violation.

For more tips on dealing with cold weather dangers, you can check out NIOSH information or guidance from OSHA.

And put on a sweater. You look a little chilled.

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