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It might be a new year, but winter has just begun and there are months of cold weather left to endure. From slips and trips to frozen fingers and damaged equipment, contractors in colder regions should make sure to perform due diligence during the winter months.

1. Site Inspections

As the weather gets worse, it's more important than ever to ensure adequate safety measures at all times. During winter months, building site inspections should take into consideration a number of specific factors due to the lower temperatures.

Machinery and equipment

Make sure fluids in equipment are rated for the temperatures in the worksite area and replace them if needed.  Check heaters in cabs to make sure they are working properly and regularly clear off ice and snow from windscreens and steps. 

Compressor tanks should be drained after each use. This will prevent moisture accumulating in the tank and freezing, which can lead to damage. Put antifreeze tool oil in pneumatic tools and air hoses to protect against the cold. 

Ensure that tools are used differently in cold weather. For example, fire empty nail guns at 40 PSI in freezing temperatures to warm them up before use.

Surfaces

Access roads and parking areas should be maintained all year round so they are free of potholes and other hazards. Once the ground is frozen, maintenance and repairs become much more difficult. 

Any holes, excavations or ditching that can't be filled in should be delineated using barricades and marked clearly, even if it snows.

Also, determine if ditching systems will be able to handle the amount of water that may accumulate based on the amount of snow. Assume the worst-case scenario and that all the snow will melt quickly.

Near the end of the winter season, it will be time to prepare for spring melt. Good site preparation during pre-season planning will ensure that preparations for spring melt are already in place.

Review the plan and ensure that planned water run-off areas are still appropriate and order pumps and hoses for fast drainage if needed.

As part of the usual on-site checks, take the time to specifically consider problems that only occur during winter. Inclines that appear perfectly benign in autumn could potentially become dangerous slipping hazards with a little ice, especially on wooden ramps and scaffolding.

Keep any reserves of sand, salt or grit readily available to prevent slips and trips.

2. Personal Injury Hazards

Slips and trips are the most common cause of workplace injury. On average, they cause more than a third of all major injuries and can lead to more serious accidents, including falls from a height or falls into machinery.

Slips and falls are one of the most common construction site accidents and they can happen all year round. However, winter weather increases the risk of falls due to ice and wet, slippery surfaces. 

When surfaces become cold, ice can accumulate on scaffolding, ladders, walkways, stairs and work platforms. If these areas are not treated correctly, built from weather-resistant materials or cordoned off, workers may slip and fall. If this occurs at height, injuries can include broken bones, fractures, head injuries and even fatalities.

Prevention is essential when protecting against slips and trips, so keeping handrails and walkways free of snow and ice is vital. In areas that cannot be safety proofed, make sure they are clearly marked to prevent access.

Tackling snow and ice

The act of shoveling snow can be extremely strenuous, especially for individuals who do not engage in regular cardiovascular activity. Studies have shown that that cold temperature can constrict arteries, which increases blood pressure and the chance of a heart attack.

One study looking at cardiac-related injuries associated with shoveling snow found that over a five-year period, snow shoveling claimed 1,647 lives. Workers should warm-up before the trying to tackle snow. OSHA advises that workers scoop small amounts of snow at a time and where possible, push the snow instead of lifting it.

The use of proper lifting technique is necessary to avoid back and other injuries when shoveling snow: keep the back straight, lift with the legs and do not turn or twist the body.

Snow removal equipment creates extremely slippery surfaces after the snow has been removed. To mitigate this, grit should be distributed after the equipment has completed snow removal. If using a de-icer, make sure site environmental requirements are met. Some sites prohibit the use of de-icers that are salt based as they can change the pH and conductivity of groundwater.

3. Exposure

For people working outdoors, prolonged exposure to the cold can become very dangerous. Freezing temperatures cause skin and internal body temperatures to drop, causing frostbite, chilblains and even hypothermia.

Cold temperatures are proven to kill more Americans every year than hot temperatures. The colder the weather gets, the harder it is for a body to adapt. While Minnesota has the reputation for cold weather, CDC data shows that all the northern Plains states are vulnerable to cold weather fatalities.

In periods of very cold weather, if work cannot be rescheduled, consider setting up warm areas for workers and make hot drinks accessible during breaks. Consider running shorter shifts to reduce exposure time and physical exertion. 

Personal protection equipment in cold weather

Personal protection equipment is an essential consideration when it comes to winter safety. Without appropriate PPE, workers are exposed to a number of risks, including:

  • reduced vision;
  • layering around ears reducing hearing;
  • snow glare;
  • decreased dexterity;
  • lack of mobility; and
  • inadequate traction.

However, winter PPE can be bulky and limit mobility. As a result, overprotection may result in totally different hazards to workers. The key is to make sure there are the right PPE for the job. It's important to balance protection against the cold and the hazards of the job task, while still allowing mobility and dexterity to complete tasks. 

Selecting PPE that best suits the task and the conditions will ensure the risk of injury is mitigated to a level as low as possible without compromising productivity. 

Gloves need to be heavy and durable, but with the right fabric and texture to retain manual dexterity. They should also be durable and waterproof in case of rain, melting snow and ice. Waterproofing is as important for gloves as it is for boots. Insulated gloves and boots keep feet warm and dry. If moisture gets in, layers will keep the feet warm. They also need to be breathable, so perspiration can get out. 

Finally, footwear should provide adequate traction when working at winter construction sites to reduce the chance of slipping.

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