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Working outdoors in the cold

Winter.

A time of cold, wet, windy, icy and snowy weather. A time of long dark nights and limited daylight. A time for many who have to work outside and their employers to take note of the hazards this presents and to take action.


Exposure to cold environments can put employees at risk of what is known as cold stress. In colder temperatures our bodies lose heat quickly. This can become a serious hazard.

If the body cannot warm itself quickly enough, we can become victim of hypothermia, frostbite, chilblains and, if our feet are cold and wet, trench foot.

Working in extreme cold can also cause a lack of concentration, which can lead to a higher risk of accidents.

It is important that outdoor workers know the signs of hypothermia and frostbite: Hypothermia:

  • Shivering or shaking

  • Lack of coordination

  • Drowsiness or confusion

  • Slurred speech


Frostbite:

  • Skin that is very cold and turns numb, hard and pale

  • Blisters or swelling

  • Joint or muscle stiffness

  • Keep the affected body part elevated in order to reduce swelling, and move the person to a warm area to prevent further heat loss. Remove all wet clothing and apply a dry, sterile bandage to the affected area or place cotton between any involved fingers or toes. Seek proper medical care as soon as possible.


Employers should take these standard safety precautions:

  • Identify potential slip, trip and fall hazards in your workplace: review incident records, inspect locations and consider the impact of changing environmental conditions.

  • Evaluate the potential risk of each hazard: number of employees who could be affected, the potential frequency of risk and the potential impact of the surrounding area or equipment.

  • Determine controls that can be implemented to reduce each hazard: relocating or removing dangerous environmental factors, limiting accessibility to higher-risk areas and providing appropriate footwear or personal protective equipment.

  • Regularly review the work environment: maintain regular housekeeping, ensure good lighting and keep equipment in proper working condition.

  • Maintain records of all incidents and continually review and improve the work environment and safety initiatives: make employees feel “safe” to report safety concerns and make changes when necessary.


Creating an environment where your staff is comfortable enough to share responsibility of your safety system may take time. The most vital component to building that trust is communication.


Effective communication does not rely on a one-directional flow from management to employees, but should instead actively seek upward feedback and input from employees to better understand and improve safety and health programmes.


When managers and supervisors take the time to listen to their workers’ perspectives and insights, it promotes an environment of respect and upholds safety as a fundamental organisational value.


And remember, if your employees often have wet or damp clothing, wear weather inappropriate clothing, or fail to wear the correct personal protective equipment, then as an employer you need to act. Overexertion, pre-existing health conditions such as diabetes, hypertension or hypothyroidism can also make the situation worse.

So as winter takes hold, as an employer:

  • Make sure that you know the signs of cold stress.

  • Provide suitable personal protective equipment suitable for the conditions.

  • Reduce draughts, add radiant heating where possible.

  • Add extra breaks in warm areas, and encourage warm meals and drinks.