Employers are always required to ensure a safe, healthy environment free from recognized hazards for all workers.
However, providing those protections can face be even more challenging during severe winter weather.
While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not have a specific standard that covers working in cold environments, employers should still train workers on the hazards of the job and safety measures to use, including engineering controls and safe work practices, to protect workers’ cold weather safety and health.
Read OSHA’s recommendations here.
At a minimum, employers should train workers on cold stress, including how to recognize the symptoms and prevent injuries and illnesses.
Some types of cold stress include frostbite, trench foot, and hypothermia. Workers should know the importance of self-monitoring for symptoms and recognizing symptoms in coworkers. They should know basic first aid, as well as how to contact additional medical assistance in an emergency.
Workers should also know how to select proper clothing for cold, wet, windy conditions.
There are other hazards that become more abundant in winter weather, including slippery roads and surfaces, windy conditions, and downed power lines. Workers should understand how to recognize these hazards and how they will be protected, including engineering controls, safe work practices, and proper selection of equipment.
Employers must provide engineering controls to reduce the risk of cold-related injury. Radiant heaters may be used to warm outdoor work areas, which should also be shielded from drafts or wind if possible. Aerial lifts and ladders should be used in place of walking on snowy roofs or elevated heights, where slipping or falling is more likely.
Employers must also implement safe work practices to protect workers from injuries, illnesses, and fatalities. These practices might include providing workers with the proper tools and equipment to do their jobs, including the personal protective equipment needed to stay safe. Work plans should be developed and discussed to identify potential hazards and safety measures taken to protect workers as well.
Work should be done in the warmer parts of the day if possible, limiting exposure to extremely cold temperatures (below 0 degrees Fahrenheit or -22-degree wind chills) and providing frequent breaks in warm areas whenever work in these extreme temperatures is necessary.
All workers at risk of cold stress should be monitored, and weather conditions should be tracked during winter storms. Supervisors should have a reliable way of communicating with workers regarding conditions, with a plan in place to stop work or evacuate if necessary.
New workers or those not used to cold weather should be acclimatized to the environment by gradually increasing their workload and allowing more frequent breaks as they build up a tolerance for the conditions.
In addition to the standard personal protective equipment required for all job site activities, employers might consider providing additional protective clothing that provides additional warmth and protection from the cold environment. While not required to do so by OSHA standards, providing things such as winter coats or parkas, gloves, rubber boots, and hats adds a safeguard to ensure workers maintain a healthy, safe work environment.
In any case, workers should dress properly for the environment in which they will be working. Layering clothing provides better insulation and allows for adjustments as weather changes. Workers should wear at least three layers of loose fitting clothing, including an inner layer of wool, silk, or synthetic (polypropylene) to wick moisture away from the body. These materials will hold more body heat than cotton and will prevent hypothermia, as moisture or dampness can increase the rate of heat loss from the body.
A middle layer of wool or synthetic to provide insulation even when wet will add further protection, and an outer wind- and rain-resistant layer will allow for ventilation to prevent overheating.
Tight clothing reduces blood circulation and should be avoided. An insulated coat or jacket will allow your blood to circulate while keeping you warm and dry. A knit mask to cover the face and mouth and a hat that cover the ears will keep workers warmer as well. Hats reduce the amount of body heat that escapes from the head, keeping the whole body warmer.
Feet and hands should be protected using insulated gloves (water resistant, if possible) and insulated and waterproof boots.
Workers should always know and be able to recognize the symptoms of cold stress and be able to monitor their own physical condition, as well as that of coworkers. Everyone working in a cold environment should dress appropriately for the cold and keep extra clothing on hand, just in case.