Worker Safety In Extreme Cold Weather
If you live on the East Coast, we don’t need to tell you that the past couple of weeks have been unbelievably cold! The Atlantic seaboard has seen record-low temperatures and sub-zero wind chills almost daily, with heavy infusions of snow and ice. As Johnny Carson used to say, “It’s so cold out that snowmen are heading south for the winter, and polar bears are putting on bearskin coats!”
As you can expect, a prolonged “deep freeze” like this has a negative impact on the productivity of outdoor workers, especially those in construction, roofing contractors, and others who perform tasks on elevated surfaces. On extremely cold days, many employees call in sick, or can’t get to their job due to snowy or icy weather, which results in a reduced workforce. Those who do make it in move more slowly on the job, and ordinary duties take twice as long to complete as they would in warm weather.
You might think the obvious solution would be to tell your employees to stay home until the weather warms up. This may be the best option in some scenarios, but it isn’t always the case. In some cases, rooftop or high-rise construction work is still possible in extreme cold weather. The key is to examine your work area to see if it is relatively safe, and if it is, to know how your workers can perform safely while also protecting themselves from the cold.
Start With Common Sense
On a freezing cold day, if your employees have to be on a rooftop or other uncovered elevated surface, the first questions you should ask are, “Should we work today? Is it possible given the current conditions?”
It’s best to start with a bit of common sense. First, look at the weather. If any snow or rain is falling, or if the wind speed is above a certain level (i.e. higher than 25 MPH), then conditions are probably too hazardous to be on a rooftop. If the weather is clear – more of a “deep freeze” than a blizzard – then rooftop work may still be possible.
Do an assessment of the environment. For example, a rooftop covered with snow, ice, or wet, slippery surfaces is an obvious “No-Go.” But if the rooftop is relatively clear, with only a few small patches of ice, it might be acceptable to be on. You should mark ice patches or other slippery areas with orange cones so employees can avoid them.
The layout of the exposed area plays a part in your decision. A rooftop with slanted metal surfaces, for example, is probably too hazardous for cold-weather work. But a flat-surface rooftop that is surrounded by three-and-a-half-foot parapets may still be relatively safe.
Also, look at what you’re trying to accomplish. Is it something that has to be done today? If you’re removing heavy snow from a rooftop, obviously that can’t wait. But an annual roof inspection or roof vent cleaning might be postponed until the weather is warmer.
Check Your Safety Policies
In determining if activities can proceed on a freezing cold day, you need to check not only your own company’s safety policies, but also those of any company or vendor you are working for or with on the job. Your employers or vendors may have stricter safety regulations than you do for cold weather work.
For example, if you are a roofing contractor, your client may have a policy that everyone is prohibited from accessing the roof of their facility if there is any ice at all on it. Your own safety policies may say that it’s okay to be on a roof if icy areas are clearly marked. But in this case, you may need to defer to your client’s safety regulations.
Likewise, you should check with your vendors or subcontractors to see if their safety policies will limit or prohibit cold weather work. If you are using an outdoor crane to move materials up to the top of the roof, the crane company may have a safety policy that they cannot operate the crane in winds higher than 25 MPH. If winds are at 30 MPH, you may be forced to cancel for the day.
Know Your Employees’ Needs
If you determine that you can proceed in freezing weather, you should next ask, “What do my employees need in order to perform their jobs safely on a day like this?”
Extreme cold weather not only heightens the everyday hazards of the work area. It also puts additional stress on workers’ bodies, in dealing with the cold extremes. Also employees may be less attentive to on-the-job safety procedures, because they are more concerned with how cold they are. (It may be a good idea to excuse or reassign older or overweight workers, or heavy smokers, since their bodies are often more vulnerable to the stresses of freezing temperatures and wind chills.)
The best defense against extreme cold, is of course, to keep the body warm as possible. Employees should wear multiple layers of clothing. Every part of the body, including the face, should be covered, especially in sub-zero weather where frostbite is a danger. If personnel are wearing hard hats, they should add a winter liner that covers both their head and neck. Steel-toed boots may require extra insulation inside the toes.
Winter clothing can also inhibit the ability to do certain tasks. For example, mittens offer better protection from the cold than ordinary gloves, but gloves give better dexterity to the fingers. One solution is to wear mittens over gloves in extreme cold. The mittens can be taken off when fingers are needed to use specialized tools like welding torches or plasma cutters, and can be put back on when use of those tools is finished.
Above all, you should listen to your workers on cold-weather days. If they tell you a certain area is unsafe, or if they don’t feel comfortable working in the extreme cold, you should give them the benefit of the doubt, even if that means rescheduling or reassigning the job. Employees know their work environments and their own limitations better than anyone, so it’s best to accommodate their feelings.
(IMPORTANT NOTE: Workers should be made aware of the dangers of hypothermia and frostbite with prolonged exposure to extreme cold, and should know how to check each other for signs of these conditions. Unfortunately, we don’t have room here to go into a full examination of these hazards. But we recommend that you read the articles at the links below, and also that you consider seeking professional training for your employees exposed to the safety hazards of extreme cold.)