How can Outdoor Workers Stay Safe During Winter Weather?
January 8, 2021
Jobs that require workers to spend a significant amount of time outdoors are often exposed to freezing temperatures, gusts of wind, snow, and icy conditions. In addition to the discomfort of being cold, workers who spend prolonged periods of time outside are at an increased risk for frostbite, hypothermia, slip and fall injuries, and car accidents. Many of these hazards can be avoided by understanding the safety risks associated with extremely cold weather and taking the necessary precautions to stay safe and warm.
The Federal Highway Administration reports that more than 1,300 people are killed, and another 116,800 are injured in car accidents related to cold weather conditions. In addition to treacherous driving conditions, cold weather can cause other hazards that can threaten the safety of workers, including power outages, increased fire activity, snow shoveling health risks, and seasonal illnesses. In fact, workplace-related illnesses, like the flu, cost employers billions of dollars each year in lost productivity, and that does not even include COVID-19 cases.
What are Common Cold Weather Safety Hazards?
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), employers have a responsibility to provide a safe work environment. While there are currently no specific standards for working in cold weather conditions, employers are expected to identify common winter weather-related hazards that can cause serious injuries or fatalities, and make sure that employees take the necessary safety precautions to avoid injuries. The following are examples of common hazards associated with winter weather:
- Cold Stress: This can occur when the extreme cold causes the body’s temperature to fall below 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Examples of injuries or illnesses caused by extreme cold include:
- Hypothermia: When the body is exposed to extremely cold temperatures for a prolonged period of time, it can cause the body to use up its stored energy. Hyperthermia sets in when the body can no longer produce heat.
- Frostbite: This occurs when the soft tissue freezes. In most cases, frostbite affects the extremities, like the fingers and toes, but it can also affect any skin that is exposed, including the nose, cheeks, and ears.
- Trench foot: This occurs when the feet are exposed to prolonged cold, wet conditions. Common signs of trench foot include redness, tingling, pain, swelling, numbness, leg cramps, and blisters.
- Chilblains: This can occur when the skin is exposed to cold, but not freezing temperatures. Inflammation of the small blood vessels in the skin can cause painful itching, swelling, and blistering on the hands and feet.
- Slip and Fall Accidents: While slip and fall accidents are one of the most common causes of workplace injuries, they are particularly common during the winter months when roadways, sidewalks, and other surfaces are more likely to be covered in ice, snow, or sleet.
- Winter Driving Accidents: Workers who do a significant amount of driving for their job are at an increased risk of being in a car accident during the winter when the roads are more likely to be slick with ice, snow, freezing rain, or black ice. These workers should be trained on how to safely maneuver roads that are covered with snow, ice, or freezing rain.
- Downed Power Lines: Winter storms can cause power lines to come down, which can cause serious injuries, including electrocutions, which can be fatal.
What Steps Should Employers Take to Keep Outdoor Workers Safe?
There are several proactive steps that employers can take to prepare for the cold weather and ensure that their employees stay safe and warm, including the following:
- Monitor the weather and other potential threats. From road closures and icy conditions to downed electrical lines, employers should keep track of the latest weather reports and road conditions and notify workers immediately if the conditions are unsafe.
- Provide workers with the necessary equipment and tools. Employers should make sure that workers are equipped with the necessary equipment to stay safe, warm, and dry. Workers who spend a significant amount of time driving should have a vehicle that is equipped with the proper tires, including a set of snow tires and chains, if necessary.
- Prevent slip and fall accidents. These simple tips can help employers prevent slip and falls during the winter season:
- Keep walkways, staircases, and other common areas dry, clean, and free from debris.
- Remove snow, ice, water, and other hazards from sidewalks.
- Mark hazardous areas with signs, cones, barricades, or floor stands.
- Discourage workers from carrying heavy loads that could compromise their balance.
- Prepare the office and worksite for cold weather hazards. All walkways, parking lots, and steps should be de-iced, salted and well-lit to prevent falls. Inspect the facility before winter arrives and make the necessary maintenance appointments and repairs. Hire an experienced, reliable snow removal contractor who will be available to clear snow and ice from the property.
- Schedule regular breaks. Make sure that workers do not spend too much time in the extreme cold. If regular breaks are scheduled in their shifts, workers will be less likely to expose themselves to the elements. Depending on the type of work that the employee does, he or she can take a break by going indoors or warming up inside his or her vehicle.
- Establish an effective emergency communication system. Employers are urged to share important, time-sensitive information about weather conditions with employees who work outside. This informs workers about how the weather conditions are going to impact their workday, and it lets workers know that their employer has their best interests at heart. A communication system should provide the following information:
- Whether they are expected to go to work or if they have the option to work from home
- If there are power outages, and how that will impact their work
- Emergency contact information
- Changes to work schedules
- Where to find up-to-the-minute updates
- Status of delivery delays
What can Workers Do to Avoid Cold Weather Injuries?
When it comes to preventing cold weather-related injuries, there are several things workers can do to stay safe and warm, including:
- Dress to stay warm and dry: Workers should wear the following clothing when working outside:
- Warm hat
- Mittens instead of gloves, as they keep the hands warmer
- Scarf or knit mask to cover the face
- Coat with sleeves that cinch at the wrist
- Inner layer made of silk, wool, or polypropylene, which holds the body’s heat better than cotton
- Insulation layer made of wool, fleece, goose down, or other natural fibers that help retain heat
- Outer layer made of water and wind-resistant material that protects the worker from wind, rain, and snow
- Avoid slip and fall accidents: By taking these simple precautions, workers can avoid falling on a slippery surface:
- Take short, slow, flat-footed steps when walking on slippery surfaces.
- Put the cell phone away and concentrate on navigating the slippery surface.
- Stay on marked paths that have been cleared or salted rather than taking a short cut.
- Wear the appropriate footwear and avoid shoes with heels or smooth soles.
- Warm up the body before doing any type of physical work outside. Warming up the muscles and joints will help complete the task more efficiently and reduce the risk of injuries. Do not smoke or drink caffeinated beverages before doing physically strenuous work, as this can increase the heart rate and cause the blood vessels to constrict.
- Use extra caution when the weather changes, or as it gets dark. This can cause surfaces to refreeze and become very slippery.
- When getting out of the car or stepping off of a curb, step down instead of out.
- Carry salt or kitty litter in the car and spread it on the road or sidewalk.
- Take regular breaks. Workers who spend long periods of time outdoors need to take breaks throughout the day to avoid putting too much stress on the body.
- Keep a cold weather emergency kit in the car. If a worker’s vehicle breaks down, having the following items on hand can help keep him or her safe and warm until help arrives:
- Extra blankets, clothing, and socks
- Flashlight with extra batteries
- Extra cell phone charger
- Bottled water
- Non-perishable food
- Candles and matches
Philadelphia Workers’ Compensation Lawyers at Galfand Berger LLP Assist Injured Workers with the Claims Process
If you or someone you know was seriously injured on the job while working outside during the cold, winter weather, contact the Philadelphia Workers’ Compensation lawyers at Galfand Berger LLP as soon as possible. We will walk you through every step of the claims process and address all of your questions and concerns. Protecting your rights is our top priority and we will continue to fight for you until you are completely satisfied. To schedule a free consultation, call us today at 800-222-8792 or contact us online. With offices in Philadelphia, Bethlehem, Lancaster, and Reading, we serve clients throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey, including Allentown and Harrisburg.