For the rest of the winter, many employees will need to work briefly or for sustained periods in cold weather — leaving them vulnerable to special hazards.
The two main health dangers from overexposure to cold are frostbite and hypothermia. Frostbite occurs when body tissues freeze; it usually affects fingers, toes, nose, cheeks, and ears. Frostbite can cause permanent tissue damage and loss of movement in affected parts. Hypothermia results from exposure to cold, which plunges body temperatures dangerously low. Hypothermia can also occur in above-freezing temperatures when it’s windy, or when a person is exhausted or wearing wet clothes. Untreated, it can lead to unconsciousness and death.
Wearing the right clothing is essential for workers to protect themselves against cold weather and to prevent heat loss. Canada’s largest union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), recommends that workers wear:
- Undergarments – A cotton shirt and shorts under thermal underwear (preferably a two-piece style). To avoid constricting blood vessels, the fit should be loose.
- Socks – Should be woolen, high, and encourage evaporation of sweat. Stretch socks restrict circulation.
- Pants – Either wool or quilted pants or lined thermal types. Pants should be roomy and worn with suspenders rather than a belt, which are constricting.
- Boots – Should be felt-lined, rubber bottomed, and leather topped, with removable insoles. Footwear should be waterproof and reach high up the leg.
- Shirt – Wool (cotton or synthetic for people allergic to wool) over underwear tops and suspenders. To aid ventilation, the shirttail should be worn outside the pants.
- Head covers – Wool knit caps or hat liners that extend down the back of the neck. A balaclava (ski mask) provides further face protection.
- Face masks – For workers who can’t afford reduced vision on the job. Workers should remove facemasks periodically to check for frostbite.
- Gloves and mittens – Mittens offer the best protection, but limit finger movement. On very cold days, it’s wise to carry both.