Construction Company Owners: Answers to Winter Safety Questions


Submitted by: Schmersahl Treloar & Co.

With winter weather here, the dangers faced by construction workers increases dramatically. Not only can bitter-cold conditions contribute to accidents and injuries, they may result in hypothermia or other serious health issues.

Recognizing the potential for disaster, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has posted some valuable information on its website, summarized below in a question-and-answer format.

Q. Who is affected by environmental cold?

A. Any worker exposed to cold air temperatures is at risk for cold stress. As wind speed increases, it causes the cold air temperature to feel even colder, increasing the risk to exposed workers. This is especially true for people who often work outdoors.

Some of the risk factors for cold stress are wetness/dampness, dressing improperly and exhaustion; predisposing health conditions such as hypertension, hypothyroidism and diabetes; and poor physical conditioning.

Q. What is cold stress?

A. Cold stress occurs when skin temperature, and eventually the internal body temperature, is lowered. If the body can’t warm itself, serious cold-related illnesses and injuries may occur — even permanent tissue damage and death. Some of the common types of cold stress are trench foot, frostbite and hypothermia.

Q. How can you prevent cold stress?

OSHA mandates employers to protect workers from recognized hazards, including cold stress hazards, that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm.

It recommends that employers train their workers to recognize the environmental and workplace conditions that can lead to cold stress; the symptoms of cold stress and how to prevent it; and what to do to help those who are affected (see right-hand box). For instance:

  • Select proper clothing for cold, wet and windy conditions.
  • Monitor workers’ physical condition.
  • Schedule frequent short breaks in warm dry areas to give the body time to warm up.
  • Provide engineering controls such as radiant heaters (see box below).

Q. How do you identify and treat trench foot?

A. Trench foot is a non-freezing injury of the feet caused by prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions. It can occur in temperatures as high as 60°F if feet are constantly wet.

Common symptoms are reddening skin, tingling, pain, swelling, leg cramps, numbness and blisters. If this occurs:

  • Call 911 in an emergency. Otherwise, seek medical assistance as soon as possible.
  • Remove wet shoes/boots and wet socks.
  • Dry feet and avoid working on them.
  • Keep affected feet elevated.
  • Obtain medical attention.

Q. How do you identify and treat hypothermia?

A. Hypothermia occurs when the normal body temperature (98.6°F) drops to less than 95°F. It is most likely at very cold temperatures, but it can happen at relatively cool temperatures above 40°F if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat or immersion in cold water.

In the worst case scenario, it can result in death. An important and often-overlooked mild symptom of hypothermia is uncontrollable shivering. Moderate to severe symptoms are loss of coordination, confusion, slurred speech, slow heart rate and breathing, and unconsciousness. If this occurs:

  • Call 911 immediately in an emergency.
  • Move the worker to a warm, dry area.
  • Replace any wet clothing with dry clothing. Wrap the entire body (including the head and neck) in layers of blankets, and with a vapor barrier (for example, a tarp or garbage bag). Don’t cover the face.
  • If medical help is more than 30 minutes away, give warm sweetened drinks if alert (but no alcohol), to help increase the body temperature.
  • Do NOT give a drink to an unconscious person.
  • Place warm bottles or hot packs in armpits, sides of chest and groin. Call 911 for additional rewarming instructions.

Q. How do you identify and treat frostbite?

A. Freezing of skin and tissues causes frostbite. The risk is increased in people with reduced blood circulation and those who are not dressed properly for extremely cold temperatures. Symptoms are reddened skin, gray/white patches in the fingers, toes, nose, or ear lobes, tingling, aching, a loss of feeling and blisters in affected areas. If this occurs:

  • Follow the recommendations above for hypothermia.
  • Protect the frostbitten area by wrapping loosely in a dry cloth and protect the area from contact until medical help arrives.
  • Do NOT rub the affected area, because rubbing causes damage to the skin and tissue.
  • Do NOT apply snow or water or break blisters.
  • Do NOT try to rewarm the frostbitten area before getting medical help (for example, don’t use heating pads or place in warm water). If a frostbitten area is rewarmed and gets frozen again, more tissue damage will occur. It is safer for the frostbitten area to be rewarmed by medical professionals.
  • Give warm sweetened drinks if alert (but no alcohol).

For more information on dealing with hazardous winter conditions, visit the OSHA webpage here.

Stay Warm

Use the following engineering controls to help reduce the risk of cold-related injuries:

1. Use an on-site source of heat, such as air jets, radiant heaters or contact warm plates.

2. Shield work areas from drafty or windy conditions.

3. Provide a heated shelter for employees who experience prolonged exposure to equivalent wind-chill temperatures of 20°F (-6°C) or less.

4. Use thermal insulating material on equipment handles when temperatures drop below 30°F (-1°C).

Cold Facts

1. When body temperature drops even a few degrees below its normal temperature of 98.6°F (37°C), the blood vessels constrict, decreasing peripheral blood flow to reduce heat loss from the surface of the skin.

2. Environmental conditions that cause cold-related stress are low temperatures, high cool winds, dampness and cold water. Wind chill, a combination of temperature and velocity, is a crucial factor to evaluate when working outside.


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