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When winter comes, many jobsites stay active; but working in the cold poses many more safety hazards than warmer temperatures. There are plenty of ways to minimize hazards and maximize efficiency when the temperatures drop. Construction business owners must prepare their workforce to keep them safe during the winter.

While only some regions experience snow, all areas of the country experience their own version of cold weather. In areas that typically experience warmer weather year round, temperatures near freezing can qualify as extreme cold, especially when the wind chill is calculated. Cold is also exacerbated by wet conditions, so the humidity level must be considered.

OSHA does not have specific requirements for working in cold weather, but employers are responsible for protecting employees from health hazards in the workplace. Cold stress, the term for any cold-related illness, is considered a hazard from which employers must protect their workers. Whenever temperatures drop significantly below normal levels, outdoor workers are at risk of cold stress.

Symptoms of Cold-Related Illnesses

If someone is not properly protected from the cold, there can be serious health consequences. By learning to recognize the signs and symptoms of the most common illnesses and injuries caused by cold stress, employees can act quickly to minimize damage.

Frostbite is an injury in which the skin and deeper tissues freeze. It can occur quickly in extremely cold temperatures, especially in the extremities—fingers, toes, hands and feet. When it is caught early, there is no lasting damage, but severe cases can require amputation.

Symptoms include white or gray patches in red, cold skin; numbness; and a firm or hard feeling in the affected area. If frostbite occurs, do not try to warm the affected area. If the skin thaws and refreezes, it can cause even more damage. Cover the area to avoid contact and seek medical attention immediately.

Hypothermia is an illness that occurs when the body temperature drops below 95 degrees and cannot reheat itself. While hypothermia is most common in below freezing temperatures, it can also occur in temperatures up to 50 degrees if the person is cooled from rain, sweat or cold water immersion.

Mild symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, though shivering will stop when it becomes more severe. Someone suffering from hypothermia may appear confused or disoriented and will likely move clumsily, with a slower pulse and breathing. In extreme cases, sufferers will lose consciousness.

Immediately dial 911 for such a severe case. In any case, seek medical attention as quickly as possible. In the meantime, move the person to a warm area and remove any wet clothing. Cover the person with blankets, apply hot water bottles if possible and try to give them warm drinks until help arrives.

Immersion or Trench Foot
Trench foot or immersion foot is an injury that occurs specifically in the feet, caused by wetness and cold. It can occur at temperatures up to 60 degrees if feet are constantly wet. The body shuts down circulation to the feet to avoid heat loss, and the skin and tissues begin to die without blood flow. The symptoms are skin redness, swelling, numbness and blisters. If someone is suffering from trench foot, immediately remove their wet shoes and socks, and seek medical attention.

Never give anyone suffering from any cold related illness or injury alcohol. It may make you feel warm, but alcohol dilates blood vessels, which can cause the body to lose heat even more rapidly. Ensure all clothing stays as dry as possible and encourage workers to bring extra clothing to change into if they get wet.

Cold Weather Gear

When cold weather comes to town, workers must have the correct gear to stay warm. The right clothing can protect workers from the adverse health effects of cold weather. Layering is important, as it traps body heat to keep you warm, so the following items should be worn from the skin out:

Base Layer
The base layer should be something thin and light. Ideally, a sports shirt with moisture wicking technology is best to keep skin dry. This goes for the legs, too. A pair of tight athletic pants or long underwear will protect the bottom half.

Intermediate Layer
The second layer should be a warm sweater or sweatshirt, but not an outerwear jacket. Wool or microfiber fleece are excellent for a warm but lightweight second layer. For pants, look for a pair with a flannel or fleece lining to maximize protection from the cold. On extremities, wear a thick pair of socks, also preferably wool. Thin glove liners are always helpful as well.

Outer Layer
Put on a heavy winter coat over the first two layers. A good coat will be rated for a specific temperature range, so make sure the coat is sufficient for the weather you will be experiencing. Also ensure you are able to be seen with a reflective vest or jacket, especially in low visibility conditions.

If employees are working in snow, it is advisable to wear a pair of waterproof snow pants. Wear tall, waterproof boots with slip resistant tread and tightly fitted, waterproof gloves. Top the clothes off with a hat that covers the ears, or a hat and a thermal headband. If the coat does not zip up all the way to your chin, add a scarf or muffler.

Time Management for Cold Weather

An efficient time management strategy is always the basis of a good plan. But, in the colder weather, that strategy needs to be altered slightly to protect workers. When temperatures drop below freezing, workers will need more frequent breaks to warm up, rest and rehydrate.

Warm, sweetened liquids are best to keep workers hydrated and alert. Cold temperatures drain more energy from the body because it must work so much harder to keep itself warm. Encourage workers to get more sleep during colder weather to keep up their endurance.

Anyone with a health condition such as diabetes or high blood pressure will be more susceptible to cold stress, so it is best to keep those employees inside as much as possible.

With adequate preparation, the job can continue even when the weather is chilly and snow is on the ground. During cold weather, monitor workers closely and pair them up to keep an eye on each other throughout the day.

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