The general populace in the UK is already feeling the bite as autumn turns noticeably to winter, and temperatures fall all around. Conventional commutes now take place in the dark, and the roads threaten to freeze over. The cold season is a bringer of risk, especially so to those working skilled physical labor jobs outdoors – in particular, to construction workers and site staff.
Working for prolonged periods outdoors can present several key risks to workers, but the winter months increase those risks significantly, as falling temperatures can have serious negative health impacts on the body. What exactly are the risks inherent to the winter for construction staff, and how can you as a site manager maintain awareness of these risks in your duty to keep your personnel healthy and safe?
Risk to Extremities
The extremities are the most at-risk parts of our bodies in cold weather. Cold weather restricts blood flow, reducing heat transfer to the hands and feet; this happens directly, and also as a result of our life support system preferring to regulate our core temperature over less important areas. This can reduce grip and control in the hands, increasing risks with handling tools. Pain and even chilblains can occur when shifting back into a warm environment too quickly.
As for the feet, extended periods of time standing in cold and wet conditions can have a profound impact on the heat regulation of your entire body, leading to severe discomfort. If the feet are in wet conditions for a particularly long time, workers run the risk of contracting trench foot.
The key to mitigating these risks is the provision of appropriate PPE for the weather. Workers should be supplied with protective footwear that offers water resistance and heat insulation as standard; gloves should be well-insulated and waterproof too, to prevent ingress of cold water while working.
Some of the above describe a wider phenomenon that can occur in workers unprotected from the cold weather: cold stress. Cold stress describes the various physical and physiological responses your body can have after failing to properly regulate core body temperature. Losing circulation to the extremities is step one towards a serious medical event, where the body’s attempts to keep core temperatures high result in the complete sacrifice of extremities – something which presents as frostbite.
While frostbite is not likely to occur on a supervised construction site, the mechanisms by which it can occur are still present. Those same mechanisms can cause dangerous changes to cognition, too, with cold-stressed individuals presenting confusion and poor coordination. Insulated clothing and regular breaks are essential to keeping workers warm throughout their shifts.
Lastly, it is important to recognize the environmental risks posed by cold weather, and how they can interact with the aforementioned risks. Icy surfaces increase the risk of slips and trips, which are the leading cause of injury in the workplace; safety boots should be well-equipped to mitigate this risk. Surfaces are also as cold as the environment around them, particularly metal ones – workers should be advised to take care when engaging with materials, so as not to cause localized injury.
With snow-covered roads, reduced visibility issues (from blowing snow/icy surfaces) and slower operating speeds due to ice/slick roads can make regular transportation hazardous in colder climates. Worksites should have an emergency evacuation plan set up so that everyone knows what procedures are necessary should dangerous road conditions arise during transportation operations such as worse snow storms where roads must be closed for safety reasons.
Slips & Falls
Ice and snow make many areas extremely slippery which increases the chances of a slip or fall occurring on your work site – even more so than usual rules on the prevention of these apply most strongly during winter months – with correct footwear required along with proper footing conditions maintained on-site through de-icing processes when appropriate whenever colder weather is encountered during operations timescales outdoor workspaces become potential hazards until special steps are taken by management teams!
Preparing for Colder Climates
Working in colder climates is challenging and requires specialized knowledge, skills, and equipment to ensure a safe working environment. It’s important to make sure that you’re properly informed of the risks associated with working in colder environments and that you know what steps need to be taken to prepare for the experience.
When preparing for work in a cold climate, you should consider a variety of factors to reduce risks and optimize safety. This can include ensuring workers have appropriate thermal protection such as base layers, outer layers, waterproofing, and insulation; having adequate supplies of fuel and food; preparing an evacuation plan; providing first-aid training; attending to hazards; checking weather forecasts regularly; conducting frequent safety inspections; monitoring hydration levels; and checking on each other periodically throughout the workday.
You also need to consider any associated health risks that come with working in cold temperatures. Staying out in the cold too long can cause serious frostbite, hypothermia, or even death if not recognized quickly enough. Make sure everyone is aware of the physical strain cold temperatures can put on the body, such as more difficulty concentrating than usual or increased exhaustion rates. Overall, preparation and education are key when planning for safer work environments in colder climates.
In conclusion, working in colder climates presents a number of risks that need to be managed in order to protect employees and maintain job site safety. By educating employees and maintaining awareness of weather conditions in the workplace, these risks can be minimized.
Careful planning and collaboration with outside organizations are essential for cold climate work, and it may even be necessary to establish stringent procedures or protocols for certain areas or tasks during extreme temperatures. Proper clothing and equipment should always be considered when working in such environments. Lastly, regular monitoring by supervisors is critical to ensure safe working conditions are being intentionally maintained.