A great deal of attention is paid to construction safety during hot weather months. However, in much of the country, cold weather projects pose a greater risk to employee health and safety. In addition to some of the physical threats, such as frostbite, hypothermia and trench foot, construction workers are more at risk for slip and fall injuries due to wet and freezing conditions.
The following tips for cold weather projects can help you to keep your employees safe on the job, and can also prevent OSHA safety violations. For more detailed information about cold weather safety, we recommend that you visit the OSHA website or call your local OSHA representative to schedule an on-site evaluation. These evaluations are free to small and medium companies and will highlight potential violations so you can correct them and improve safety conditions on your job site.
10 Tips For Improving Worker Safety on Cold Weather Projects
- Pay attention to the weather report. Your construction schedule may need to veer off your projected timeline and daily schedules to accommodate the weather. Shift worker locations and activities as needed according to the daily local weather report. For example, schedule outdoor work during the warmest periods of the day and use early morning and late-afternoon hours for interior trim work or other projects that can be completed undercover and out of the wind or elements.
- Do daily a.m. site inspections. Ideally, you should perform site inspections every morning. These are especially important during the late fall, winter, and early spring months when black-ice, icicles and other winter hazards can form overnight.
- Recognize the symptoms of cold stress. There are several conditions that can occur if workers are not dressed properly or are exposed to cold and/or wet conditions for too long. If you detect any of these conditions among your employees, remove them to a warm area and call seek immediate medical attention. Symptoms of cold stress include:
- Hypothermia. Mild symptoms: Normal body temperature (98° F) drops below 96°F, uncontrollable shivering but still mentally alert. In severe cases, shivering stops, mental confusion, slurring speech, slowed heart rate and breathing, and/or loss of consciousness can occur.
- Frostbite. This occurs when body tissues freeze and it can happen above freezing temperatures as the result of wind chill. In worst case scenarios, amputation is required. Symptoms include numbness, reddened skin with white or grey patches, skin that feels hard or firm to the touch, and blisters may appear.
- Trench foot. Also known as immersion foot, this is a non-freezing condition that occurs when feet are exposed to cold, wet, and unsanitary conditions for extended periods of time. If the feet are continuously wet, it can also occur when temperatures are as high as 60° F. Symptoms include redness, numbness, swelling and blisters.
- Hold regular safety meetings. Use weekly safety meetings that are relevant to the climate and weather conditions so employees are consistently reminded and can look out for one another when project managers, safety coordinators and/or superintendents are out of range.
- Encourage and/or provide proper gear. Explain how the clothes we wear can help or hurt us during cold weather months. Employees should wear layered clothing that is weather-specific, including hats, sunglasses (to prevent snow blindness), waterproof boots and outerwear, etc.
- Clear paths, scaffolding and walkways. It is imperative that pathways and scaffolding remain free of debris, water, and/or ice. Use de-icing products as per manufacturer's instructions. It is usually best to apply these products before the storm or freeze for ultimate results. If you are plowing or shoveling show, make sure the resulting piles and drifts do not become an additional safety hazard.
- Remove icicles. Falling icicles are life-threatening hazards. Have employees clear the site of icicles on a daily basis and make sure to inspect the job site regularly to look out for new ones.
- Warm breaks. Just as summer means short breaks each hour to cool off and rehydrate, cold weather projects need to include a warm space for employees to rest and return to a comfortable temperature while they sip water or other warm beverages.
- The buddy system. If the day requires work that will expose employees to excessive cold, wind, etc. place workers in teams so they can look out for one another and alert managers to a partner or teammate with suspected of cold stress.
- Use heater safety. Space heaters have been a miracle for cold weather projects but they are also safety hazards. Make sure to observing best practices when utilizing space heaters on the job site, and have the heaters inspected/repaired on a biannual basis.
Safety is critical to your company's bottom line. Adhering to the above cold weather safety tips will help to see your crew safely through to spring.