The days might be getting longer again, but for much of Canada and the United States, the winter weather is only just getting started. The cold temperatures often reach their most intense in January and February, and that poses a real threat to outdoor maintenance workers, whether that is construction workers, exterior cleaners, snow removal, or any other of the numerous roles required in building maintenance.
Thankfully, the U.S. Department of Labour’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) offers tips on how employers can protect their outdoor maintenance staff during the coldest months of the year.
Outdoor maintenance work requires proper preparation, especially in severe winter weather conditions. Although OSHA does not have a specific standard that covers working in cold environments, employers have a responsibility to provide workers with employment and a place of employment that are free from recognized hazards, including winter weather-related hazards, which are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to them. Employers should, therefore, train workers on the hazards of the job and safety measures to use, such as engineering controls and safe work practices, that will protect workers’ safety and health.
- Train workers
- Provide engineering controls
- Implement safe work practices
- Consider protective clothing that provides warmth
- Dressing properly for the cold
- Safety tips for workers
Employers must train workers
At a minimum, employers should train outdoor maintenance workers on:
- How to recognize the symptoms of cold stress, prevent cold stress injuries and illnesses; the importance of self-monitoring and monitoring coworkers for symptoms
- First aid and how to call for additional medical assistance in an emergency
- How to select proper clothing for cold, wet, and windy conditions
- Other winter weather-related hazards that workers may be exposed to, for example, slippery roads and surfaces, windy conditions, and downed power lines; and how to recognize these hazards
- Protect workers via engineering controls, safe work practices, and proper selection of equipment, including personal protective equipment
Employers should provide engineering controls
Engineering controls can be effective in reducing the risk of cold stress. For example, radiant heaters may be used to warm workplaces like outdoor security stations. If possible, employers should shield work areas from drafts or wind to reduce wind chill.
Employers should use engineering controls to protect workers from other winter weather-related hazards, for example, aerial lifts or ladders can be used for safely applying de-icing materials to roofs, to protect workers from the hazard of falling through skylights.
Employers must implement safe work practices
Safe work practices that employers can implement to protect workers from injuries, illnesses and fatalities include:
- Providing workers with the proper tools and equipment to do their jobs
- Developing work plans that identify potential hazards and the safety measures that will be used to protect workers
- Scheduling maintenance and repair jobs for warmer months or at least the warmest part of the day
- Avoiding exposure to extremely cold temperatures when possible and limiting the amount of time spent outdoors on extremely cold days
- Using relief workers to assign extra workers for long, demanding jobs
- Providing warm areas for use during break periods, as well as warm liquids (no alcohol) to workers
- Monitoring workers who are at risk of cold stress
- Monitoring the weather conditions during a winter storm, having a reliable means of communicating with workers and being able to stop work or evacuate when necessary
- Acclimatizing new workers and those returning after time away from work by gradually increasing their workload, and allowing more frequent breaks in warm areas, as they build up a tolerance for working in the cold environment
- Having a means of communicating with workers, especially in remote areas
- Knowing how the community warns the public about severe weather: outdoor sirens, radio, and television
Employers should consider providing protective clothing that offers warmth
Employers must provide personal protective equipment (PPE), for example, fall protection, when required by OSHA standards to protect workers’ safety, and health. However, in limited cases, there are exceptions to the requirement for employers to provide PPE to workers. For instance, there is no OSHA requirement for employers to provide workers with ordinary clothing, skin creams, or other items, used solely for protection from weather, such as winter coats, jackets, gloves, parkas, rubber boots, hats, raincoats, ordinary sunglasses, and sunscreen.
Regardless of this, many employers provide their workers with winter weather gear such as winter coats/jackets and gloves.
Dressing properly for the cold
Dressing properly is extremely important in preventing cold stress. When cold environments or temperatures cannot be avoided, the following would help protect workers from cold stress:
- Wear at least three layers of loose-fitting clothing, bearing in mind that layering provides better insulation.
- Wearing an inner layer of wool, silk or synthetic (polypropylene) to keep moisture away from the body. Thermal wear, wool, silk or polypropylene, inner layers of clothing that will hold more body heat than cotton.
- Wearing a middle layer of wool or synthetic to provide insulation even when wet.
- Wearing an outer wind and rain protection layer that allows some ventilation to prevent overheating.
- Avoiding tight clothing which reduces blood circulation. Warm blood needs to be circulated to the extremities. Insulated coat/jacket (water-resistant if necessary)
- Wearing a knit mask to cover face and mouth (if needed)
- Wearing a hat that will cover your ears as well. A hat will help keep your whole body warmer. Hats reduce the amount of body heat that escapes from your head.
Insulated gloves (water resistant if necessary), to protect the hands
Insulated and waterproof boots to protect the feet
Safety tips for workers
- Your employer should ensure that you know the symptoms of cold stress
- Monitor your physical condition and that of your coworkers
- Dress appropriately for the cold
- Stay dry in the cold because moisture or dampness, e.g. from sweating, can increase the rate of heat loss from the body
- Keep extra clothing (including underwear) handy in case you get wet and need to change
- Drink warm sweetened fluids (no alcohol)
- Use proper engineering controls, safe work practices, and personal protective equipment (PPE) provided by your employer