Employee safety during winter's "big chill"

When the winds are howling, the snow drifting and the temperatures plummeting, your employees have more to worry about than “Jack Frost nipping at their nose.”

If forecasts hold true, this could continue to be an especially rough winter season for much of the country. Now is the time to step up your cold-weather safety training to ensure your employees work safely outdoors and are prepared for any winter-related emergencies.

For your employees at the greatest risk …

If your business involves construction, commercial fishing, maritime or agriculture, much of your workforce is directly exposed to the dangers of extreme cold. Meet your obligation under OSHA to provide a safe working environment by educating outdoor employees on cold-weather risks and guiding them on proper winter wear.

The two biggest health threats for your outdoor employees are frostbite and hypothermia. Alert them to the early signs of cold stress, and what they should do if they (or a coworker) show symptoms of either condition.

Frostbite occurs when body tissues freeze, most often affecting the fingers, toes, nose, cheeks and ears. It can permanently damage tissue and cause loss of movement in the areas affected. Early symptoms include numbness, tingling or stinging, aching, and bluish or pale skin.

Recommended first aid: Move the victim to a warm room or shelter; discourage the victim from walking on frostbitten feet or rubbing the frostbitten area, which can cause damage; and immerse the affected area in warm water.

Hypothermia occurs when body temperatures drop to dangerously low levels due to exposure to cold (as well as other factors, such as high winds, exhaustion and wet clothes.) Early symptoms include shivering, fatigue, loss of coordination and disorientation. In later stages, hypothermia can lead to bluish skin, dilated pupils, slowed pulse and even unconsciousness and death, if left untreated.

Recommended first aid: Move the victim to a warm room or shelter; remove wet clothing; warm the chest, neck, head and groin with an electric blanket, if possible; provide warm beverages; and keep the victim dry and wrapped in a warm blanket.

Keep in mind that these risks increase significantly in relation to the windchill factor. On blustery, cold days, the wind eliminates the thin layer of air that acts as an insulator between the skin and the outside air, which can cause a loss of as much as 80 percent of a person’s total body heat.

Even when conditions aren’t severe enough to cause frostbite or hypothermia, they may lead to other safety hazards for your employees. For example, a worker that loses feeling and dexterity in his hands may have difficulty handling tools, equipment and other materials, increasing the chance of an accident.

What they wear matters

The right clothing is a vital defense against the cold weather. While OSHA does not require you, in most cases, to provide cold-weather personal protective equipment (PPE) to employees at no cost to them, it’s certainly a good idea to inform them on what type of gear will safeguard them from the elements.

To prevent heat loss, employees should wear several layers of loose clothing and a durable winter coat that provides adequate insulation, sheds snow and wetness, and allows the escape of moisture from within. Thermal underwear is also recommended, along with wool socks, quilted or lined pants, waterproof, insulated footwear, wool knit caps or hat liners, and gloves or mittens.

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