How Can Construction Workers Stay Safe in Winter?

winter worker

Many people have jobs that require extended periods spent outdoors and exposed to the elements. Winter weather can make outdoor work especially dangerous. The combination of potential precipitation and extremely cold temperature can be deadly for improperly equipped workers. 

Most employers provide workers with equipment and gear to handle outdoor work. Many workers also purchase personal clothing and cold-weather gear that better enables them to work in extremely cold conditions. But those are preliminary precautions that do not always protect against the many potential dangers of winter weather working conditions. 

The following are some of the more dangerous elements of winter weather work and how to stay as safe as possible. 

Three Threats to Winter Worker Health

Cold weather affects equipment and bodies alike. When the temperature plunges too low, it is best to postpone outdoor work. However, that is not always possible. When wintertime weather makes work conditions less than ideal, extreme caution is needed to protect workers. 

Cold weather could cause potentially deadly work conditions and lead to life-threatening illnesses such as pneumonia. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) says there are three primary concerns during frigid winter weather work. Those three concerns are:

  • Cold-related illnesses
  • Cold-related injuries
  • Cold stress

The combination of cold-related illnesses, injuries, and stress makes wintertime work especially difficult and dangerous. So does the weather, which can make travel particularly difficult. 

Cold-Related Illnesses and Precautions

Although the cold and flu bugs are particularly active during the winter months, they are not cold-related illnesses. A cold-related illness is one that directly is caused by cold weather. 

If you are working outdoors in cold and rainy weather, the onset of pneumonia would be an example of a cold-related illness. So could bronchitis. Both of those could become deadly illnesses. 

Hypothermia is an even greater concern among potential cold-related illnesses. Hypothermia occurs when the body temperature drops and the body’s organs do not function properly. Hypothermia could be deadly, affects judgment, and could make it more difficult to move around normally. 

Symptoms of hypothermia include uncontrollable shivering, fatigue, and general confusion. If the shivering stops and the worker’s skin becomes blue, an advanced and very dangerous state of hypothermia has taken hold and death could be possible. Moving a worker into a warm shelter, removing any wet clothing, and wrapping the worker in warm blankets help to restore a safe body temperature. 

Cold-Related Injuries and Precautions

Frostbite is considered a cold-related injury and many times results in partial amputation. Frostbite occurs when a part of the body freezes and loses its sense of feeling or color. Frostbite usually affects the extremities, such as the ears, nose, fingers, cheeks, and chin.

Wearing warm and dry clothing that helps to cover exposed skin helps to prevent frostbite. Layered clothing helps to keep the extreme cold away from the skin while also protecting internal organs. If you can have a thermos of hot chocolate with you, the hot beverage could help to keep your body warm. 

If you ever watched any movies or documentaries regarding the trench warfare of World War I, you likely have heard of trench foot. After all, the trenches of the First World War are where the name of the injury originated. Trench foot happens whenever the feet become wet and cold and cannot dry out. 

Trench foot can occur in warmer weather as well if the feet are continually wet. NIOSH says wet feet lose body heat 25 times faster than dry feet. Cold and wet feet tend to shut down the blood flow to the feet when rapid heat loss occurs. With circulation shut off to the feet, the skin cells die from a lack of oxygen and an increase in toxins. 

Severe cases could result in amputation of one or both feet. The old remedy remains the best to combat trench foot. That is to wear dry boots and have a change of socks to keep the feet dry and as warm as possible during cold weather. 

Cold Stress and Precautions

Cold stress refers to the changes in outdoor temperature and their effects on workers. The change does not have to involve temperatures that drop to below freezing. Worksites that are located in very warm climates such as the Desert Southwest can experience cold stress when the outdoor temperatures drop into the 40- or even just the 50-degree ranges. 

Whenever there is a significant change in temperature that affects work conditions, cold stress occurs. Cold stress includes the effects of wind, precipitation, and much lower temperatures on the body. 

Cold stress also affects work equipment and could make some pieces downright dangerous. A simple piece of exposed metal could cause flash freezing if it comes into contact with bare skin. Power equipment might have pieces that freeze or internal fluids that freeze and cause them to break. Damaged equipment might lead to worker injuries. 

The best way to protect against cold stress is to ensure workers have access to the proper gear and equipment for use in colder weather. 

Driver Safety Concerns during the Winter

Drivers need to get materials to worksites for construction projects to continue. Truck owners and drivers need to ensure their commercial vehicles are properly equipped and maintained for winter driving. 

That includes snow tires on vehicles that need them for handling potentially deeper snow. The antifreeze needs to be sufficient to prevent the coolant from freezing up. In addition, the battery, charging system, and cabin heater all need to be in top condition to help maintain a safe work environment while on the road.

Brake systems always need to be in good condition. Also, the wiper blades should be replaced with ones that can manage potential snow accumulation while driving. Using windshield washer fluid that contains deicer can help to maintain good vision by keeping the windshield clear of snow and ice. 

OSHA Requirements for Cold Weather Worksites

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not formally regulate work conditions concerning cold weather. However, OSHA does require employers to properly equip their workers to do their jobs with a reasonable amount of safety. That includes safety from the elements that could become dangerous, especially during the winter in cold regions. 

OSHA requires employers to properly train their workers so that they can manage the work conditions, including cold weather. That training should include how cold stress impacts the workplace and job and how to protect against it. 

OSHA also says job providers should provide scheduled breaks in warm and dry areas, schedule work during the warmest part of the day, and place radiant heaters on the worksite. Using the buddy system can help workers to watch for danger signs in coworkers during cold weather. 

The employers also should monitor the physical condition of workers to ensure they are safe and not suffering while on the job. Any signs of cold stress affecting workers should cause employers to improve work conditions as much as possible with appropriate gear and equipment. 

Workers’ Compensation for Winter Weather Work Injuries

If you suffer a work injury because of a cold work environment, Workers’ Compensation should cover it. You should report a cold-related injury to your supervisor and seek medical treatment right away. Continuing to work with a cold-related injury could make it much worse. 

That usually means seeing the company doctor for the initial treatment, but in Delaware you can use your own doctor. You never are required to obtain care from a doctor who is selected by your employer or the insurer underwriting the Workers’ Compensation coverage. 

If the extent of your cold-related injuries requires you to miss work while healing, the lost income also should be covered by Workers’ Compensation. If you miss work from a cold-related illness, that also should be covered by Workers’ Compensation. 

Wilmington Workers’ Compensation Lawyers at McCann Dillon Jaffe & Lamb, LLC Help Workers Recover from Their Injuries

If you suffered a cold-related injury or illness while working at a construction site or elsewhere, the Wilmington Workers’ Compensation lawyers at McCann Dillon Jaffe & Lamb, LLC can help you. Our legal team will fight to ensure that you receive fair and just compensation for your injuries. Call us today at 302-888-1221 or contact us online for a free consultation. Located in Wilmington, Delaware, we serve clients in Dover, Newark, and Middletown.