The main risks workers face from working outdoors in the winter are all a direct cause of the cold temperatures they are exposed to. Specifically, these risks are frostbite, hypothermia, snow blindness and slips and falls.
In order to properly protect themselves from these risks, workers need to recognize that the weather is not something to be accepted simply because it is part of nature.
“When we’re going to work outside, we see the weather and the cold and whatever as a hazard,” says an occupational health and safety advisor with a major Ontario employer. “It has to be identified and addressed. If people think of it that way, it might get them to do a little bit more planning when they’re going to have to deal with it.”
The primary way workers can protect themselves from frostbite and hypothermia is to dress appropriately for the weather. In short, this means dressing in layers.
According to Jan Chappel, a senior technical specialist with Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, protection is best achieved by dressing in at least three layers: an inside layer made from a synthetic material that can whisk away sweat, a middle layer much like a sweater and a wind- and waterproof outer layer.
It is also important for workers to recognize that they will sweat when they work, Chappel says.
“Most people dress for when they’re standing around in the cold,” she says. “Once they start working they’re going to warm up and start sweating, so you want to be able to have that flexibility.”
This is an idea the OHS advisor agrees with, saying that if a worker is outside for a long time the layers will come in handy. At the same time, if the worker gets too warm, he/she can take off the extra layers to reduce sweating.
“We suggest you wear more clothing than you normally have to, and then you can always peel off a layer,” he says.
Chappel discourages the use of clothing made from cotton, “mostly because cotton gets wet, and what you don’t want to do is get wet. You want to stay as dry as possible.”
In addition to layers to keep the body warm, workers may also benefit from following a work warm-up schedule. This schedule is dependent on the air temperature and the wind chill factor, and dictates how often a worker should take a break to warm up. The colder the temperature and the colder the wind chill factor, the more often a worker should take a break during a regular work day.
Beyond keeping the body warm, workers also need to protect their extremities from frostbite. According to the OHS advisor, the body parts most susceptible to the cold and frostbite are the hands, fingers, legs, feet, toes, head, ears, face and nose.
For the hands and fingers, the best protection is gloves, which keep the fingers insulated together. If the job requires more manual dexterity, insulated gloves with a waterproof outer layer are an effective alternative.
For the feet and toes, insulated boots and warm socks are encouraged. The socks could either be one pair of thick socks, or two pairs layered to give the same effect as layering on the body. It is also important that the boots be waterproof, as work can involve standing in icy water.
The best way to protect the head is to wear a warm hat, such as a toque. For the face, the use of a scarf or a facemask will help protect against the cold. In some cases, eye protection is required, both from the wind and from sun reflecting off the snow. For this, Chappel suggests eyewear that offers UV protection, but adds it is often dependent on the job at hand.
Beyond the risks the cold temperatures have on the body, there is also the risk of slipping on ice. Although mail carriers and delivery personnel typically suffer the most injuries from slips and falls in the winter, our winter safety experts note no one is immune from the risks.
Depending on the circumstances, it is usually the responsibility of the worker to avoid slipping on ice. Workers need to be vigilant about where he/she is walking, paying attention to any changes in the terrain. Slips can also be prevented by wearing footwear with a sturdy tread that can grip the ice, or by putting special grips on the soles of your boots that dig into any ice.
Canada Post suggests another way workers, in particular mail carriers and delivery personnel, can protect themselves from slipping: carry a small bag of sand or rock salt in their pockets to sprinkle on any ice they may find.
This is not to say employers are exempt from protecting their workers from slips. Employers must make sure any place their workers have to walk in winter is properly shovelled and cleared of ice. If the ice cannot be removed completely, it is the employer’s responsibility to put sand or salt on the ice to provide a rough surface the workers’ boots can grip.
Winter dangers are not limited to what can happen to the body. There are also risks involved for those people who are required to operate a motor vehicle as part of their job. These people include bus drivers, taxi drivers, delivery personnel and other such occupations.
The most common hazards for these people are: precipitation in the form of snow, rain and freezing rain; visibility issues like snow, blowing snow and fog; extreme temperatures and skidding.
“First and foremost we recommend that the vehicle be properly equipped for winter operation,” says Spencer McDonald, president of the driver education company Thinking Driver. Properly equipping a vehicle includes installing winter tires, servicing the vehicle to ensure all fluids are topped up, keeping the wiper blades in good condition and carrying a winter survival kit.
All drivers need to pay attention to road conditions, McDonald says, but those who must drive need to be extra cautious.
“People who drive as part of their job are required to drive,” he says. “So there’s less of an opportunity for them to either call a different time to travel or decline travel altogether.”
He says that all workers, regardless of their job, may decline to work if the weather conditions are too unsafe, but adds that workers who have to drive for work “don’t have that luxury, and so they have to be prepared to go out in conditions that are less than favourable.”
Being prepared for how to react to a skid is valuable. Many drivers will encounter a situation when they could experience a skid, and they need to know the best way to avoid one. McDonald says the best way to avoid entering a skid is to drive smoothly, without jerky steering or uneven acceleration or braking.
On the whole, working outdoors in winter is not an inherently dangerous activity, provided the worker is prepared. If the worker dresses according to the weather, and takes all the necessary precautions to ensure his/her safety, the risks are substantially reduced. Employers should also ensure that their workers are educated about the risks of winter outdoor work.