Most construction employers and employees are well aware of the potentially deadly effects of heat stress, but they often overlook the hazards of cold weather. Prolonged exposure to cold weather can result in a number of injuries, such as frostbite and hypothermia. It can also aggravate existing medical conditions such as arthritis, increase the risk of musculoskeletal injuries, and affect dexterity and coordination.
In spite of the number of hazards associated with cold stress, there are steps both workers and employers can take to minimize its risks:
- Monitor wind chill and temperature – Wind chill can heighten the effects of cold stress. Low temperatures combined with high wind velocity can cause a worker to lose heat rapidly.
- Create a warm-up schedule – Designate specific, periodic times for warm-up breaks. Increase the number of warm-up breaks as the wind velocity increases and/or the temperature drops.
- Protect work areas from windy conditions – Wrap industrial plastic around the exterior of the area in which employees are working, or provide a heater to warm up the area.
- Provide a heated shelter – Workers with prolonged exposure to equivalent wind-chill temperatures of 20 degrees above zero or less need to have an easily accessible, heated enclosure so that they can warm up in the event they are becoming hypothermic.
- Dress appropriately for cold weather – Workers exposed to cold weather should wear three layers of clothing and protect their heads, hands, and feet.
- Drink plenty of fluids – Cold environments suppress thirst, making it easy to become dehydrated. Workers need to ensure they drink enough while working in the cold. Drink beverages that are warm and sweet because they will help maintain body temperature. Alcoholic beverages should be avoided because they cause the body to lose heat more rapidly.
- Eat high calorie meals – When the body’s metabolism burns calories, it produces heat. The more calories that are burned, the more likely the body will remain warm in a cold environment. Workers who wear heavy, protective clothing lose more heat, which means they need 10% to 15% more calories to maintain normal body temperature.
- Avoid smoking – Research shows that smoking lowers body temperature to below normal levels.
- Stop working when exhausted or fatigued – Cold weather affects the amount of physical work an individual can perform, and fatigue will increase the risk of hypothermia.
- Use the buddy system – Cold stress can cause a worker to become disoriented and jeopardize their safety.
- Always work in pairs when working in extremely cold conditions so partners can monitor one another and obtain help in an emergency.