Baby it’s Cold Outside: Cold Weather Precautions and Protections for Outdoor Workers

Warm weather may stay around all year for some parts of the southern United States. However, cooler fall weather is arriving in many areas of North America and Europe. Fall will quickly give way to Winter and employers should prepare proactively for their workers for the rigors and dangers of being exposed to cold weather working conditions.

It’s no secret that working in cold weather conditions can pose significant risks to the health and safety of outdoor workers. Exposure to cold temperatures, wind, and precipitation can lead to a range of cold-related illnesses and injuries, including frostbite, hypothermia, and cold stress. To protect the well-being of employees working in cold environments, it is essential for employers and workers to be aware of the potential hazards of working long hours in the cold and to implement precautions and protections. 

Before determining what precautions and protections should be taken, it’s important to understand the hazards associated with cold weather exposure. Cold-related illnesses and injuries primarily occur due to the body’s inability to maintain its core temperature in cold conditions. Here are some of the key hazards outdoor workers face in cold weather:

  • Frostbite is a severe cold-related injury that occurs when skin and underlying tissues freeze. It typically affects extremities like fingers, toes, ears, and the nose. Symptoms include numbness, pale or hardened skin, and pain. If not treated promptly, frostbite can lead to tissue damage and even amputation.
  • Hypothermia is a life-threatening condition that occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce it, causing the core body temperature to drop to a dangerously low level. Symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, confusion, slurred speech, and, in severe cases, loss of consciousness. Untreated hypothermia can be fatal.
  • Cold stress encompasses various cold-related health issues, including frostbite and hypothermia. It can also manifest as trench foot, a condition caused by prolonged exposure to cold, wet conditions, resulting in tissue damage. Symptoms include numbness, tingling, and swelling of the feet.
  • Immune system suppression can occur from prolonged exposure to cold weather making workers more susceptible to illnesses such as colds and the flu, aggravate respiratory diseases like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and irritate the airway and cause breathing trouble breathing, coughing, and excess mucus production.
  • Increased risk of cardiac issues, like heart attack and stroke, can occur with workers with heart disease and loss of body heat can cause blood near the skin’s surface to contract, leading to increase blood pressure, constriction of blood vessels, dehydration, and blood thickening that can cause the formation of blood clots.
  • Manual dexterity and coordination can be greatly reduced by prolonged or extreme short-term exposure to cold temperatures making it challenging to perform tasks that require fine motor skills. Loss or reduced functioning of body coordination and dexterity may lead to accidents and injuries in jobs that require precise task accomplishment.

Innovative protective practices for workers in extreme cold weather continue to evolve to enhance safety, comfort, and productivity in challenging environments. These practices combine advanced technologies, ergonomic designs, and creative solutions to mitigate the risks associated with cold weather exposure. These innovative protective practices demonstrate the ongoing efforts to improve worker safety and comfort in extreme cold weather conditions. Employers and workers should continually assess the specific needs of their work environments and consider adopting these innovations to enhance cold weather protection and reduce the risks associated with exposure to extreme cold.

Emerging technologies and best practices in cold weather protection. Here are some items that exist right now for employers to consider supplying to their cold-weather workers to help prevent injuries and illnesses:

  • Smart clothing and heated clothing such as battery-powered heated jackets, vests, gloves, and insoles can provide on-demand warmth to workers and can have adjustable heat settings that can help maintain a comfortable body temperature.
  • Phase change materials that absorb, store, and release heat to regulate body temperature providing prolonged warmth without the need for frequent heating.
  • Wearable Sensors can be embedded in cold weather clothing to monitor workers’ body temperature, heart rate, and other vital signs in real-time.
  • Aerogel insulations can be used in extreme cold-weather clothing and equipment to provide superior thermal protection without adding bulk, and vacuum Insulation panels consisting of a core material surrounded by a vacuum can significantly reduce heat transfer when used in cold-weather gear and equipment to improve insulation.
  • Articulated joints or exoskeletons can be installed in cold weather clothing to allow for better movement, flexibility, and strength while wearing insulated garments. 
  • Smartphone apps and wearables can help workers track their calorie intake, hydration levels, and nutritional needs to maintain energy and stay warm.
  • Weather apps and wearables that provide real-time weather forecasts and alerts specific to their location. This information enables them to make informed decisions about adjusting their work practices based on upcoming weather conditions.
  • Equipment and surfaces can be treated with innovative coatings that prevent ice and frost buildup. In remote or off-grid locations, solar-powered heating systems can provide sustainable warmth to workers without relying on traditional fuel sources.
  • Wearable GPS devices can track the real-time location of workers in remote, cold environments, enhancing safety and facilitating quick responses in emergencies.
  • Hands-free communication devices, such as integrated headsets and radios, enable workers to stay connected and coordinate activities without exposing their hands or removing protective gear.
  • Thermal imaging cameras can be used for detecting temperature variations and identifying cold stress symptoms in workers.
  • Heated hand tools, such as heated wrenches and pliers, can improve the efficiency and safety of maintenance and repair tasks in extreme cold.

Employers are typically obligated to provide a safe working environment and take measures to prevent cold-related injuries and illnesses. OSHA suggests that the following measures be taken:

  • Training and Education

Employers need to implement a comprehensive cold weather safety program and related policies that include education and training, protective cold weather clothing, specialized cold weather personal protective equipment, administrative controls such as breaks, warming and hydration schedules, shelter from extreme temperatures and winds, worker monitoring, and pre-planned emergency response procedures.

  • Temperature Guidelines

OSHA does not specify a particular temperature at which employers must provide specific protections. OSHA has advised that employers should consider factors such as wind chill, temperature, and the duration of exposure when determining the appropriate safeguards. OSHA recommends that employers monitor weather conditions and adjust work practices accordingly.

  • Mandatory Breaks

Laws may require employers to provide specific rest and warming breaks at certain temperature levels.

  • PPE Requirements

Regulations often mandate the use of certain PPE, such as insulated clothing or face protection, in cold weather conditions.

Working in cold weather conditions presents unique challenges and hazards for outdoor workers. By carefully preplanning precautions and protections and taking cold weather seriously, employers can create a safer and more comfortable working environment for their outdoor workers during the cold winter months. Adherence to legal requirements and regulations ensures that employers are fulfilling their duty of care and avoiding potential legal liabilities. OSHA regulations may vary by industry and location, so employers should consult OSHA’s official website and local OSHA offices for specific guidance and requirements relevant to their operations. When in doubt, OSHA’s General Duty Clause requires employers to provide a safe and healthy workplace for employees. This clause applies to outdoor workers who may be exposed to cold weather conditions, and employers are responsible for taking steps to prevent cold-related illnesses and injuries.

 James A. Junkin, MS, CSP, SMS, ASP, CSHO is the chief executive officer of Mariner-Gulf Consulting & Services, LLC and the chair of the Veriforce Strategic Advisory Board. He is Columbia Southern University’s 2022 Safety Professional of the Year (Runner Up) and a much sought after master trainer, keynote speaker, podcaster, and author of numerous articles concerning occupational safety and health.