Working outdoors during the winter months can pose risks for workers. They are more susceptible to cold illnesses, such as hypothermia, which can have damaging long-term effects or result in fatalities.
Dressing properly, eating properly and keeping an eye on each other are the best ways to prevent hypothermia, according to Workplace Safety North (WSN), a not-for-profit health and safety organization in Ontario.
The following are tips from WSN for ensuring workers are kept safe while working in the cold during the winter months.
Dressing in loose-fitting layers is essential, says WSN. The layers trap heat easily and allow workers to adjust clothing as activities change throughout the day. It’s important to wear enough layers during activity to keep warm without sweating excessively, and then add layers when starting to engage in less strenuous activity.
Layers should be made of fabrics that retain warmth when wet, such as wool, polyester fleece and polypropylene (often found in synthetic long-johns). Cotton is quite possibly the worst fabric to wear for warmth in winter, says WSN. Once it gets wet (from rain, snow or sweat), the cotton will start to extract heat out of the body. The effects can be particularly noticed in cotton socks, underwear, or when a cotton t-shirt is the first layer next to skin. Goose down is an excellent insulator when dry, but because it loses almost all its insulating power when wet, it is best to avoid during a Canadian winter.
To work comfortably outside, a layering system should be applied to pants, socks, jackets, gloves and hats. It starts with a wicking layer to remove moisture from skin. From there it builds into heavier and more durable fabric.
Wicking layer: This is the layer next to the skin. This layer should remove moisture from the skin and transfer it to the next layer, to avoid the body cooling down due to sweat. Recommended layers are synthetic or polypropylene long johns, tops and socks. Do not use cotton.
Light insulating layer: This goes on after the wicking layer. A light fleece or thin wool sweater is an excellent light insulating layer.
Heavy insulating layer: A heavier fleece or wool sweater begins to trap heat in the body.
Windproof-waterproof layer: This protects the body from the weather conditions from wind to rain or wet snow.
Winter toque: Thirty to fifty per cent of body heat is lost through the head. A winter hat adds as much warmth as all your layers. In winter conditions, everyone should be wearing a toque. Balaclavas can be worn under toques and are excellent for protecting facial tissue from frostbite.
Gloves and mitts: Mitts are warmer than gloves but not always practical for work that requires detail. To help with this problem, a thin glove can be worn inside a mitt. This will allow workers to remove mitts for more technical work while not exposing bare skin to the cold. Once done the work, workers should return gloved hands promptly to mitts.
Socks and gaiters: A two-layer sock system is most recommended for winter travel. A thin polypropylene sock with a wool sock over top allows moisture to be wicked from the feet and wool will stay warm even when wet. If wearing hiking boots in the bush, gaiters are highly recommended.
They prevent snow sliding down into the boots and add warmth by trapping air. Gaiters go on outside of the boot and pant leg and are great for keeping snow from entering boots.
Working outdoors requires the body to produce heat to keep warm. Due to the extreme conditions, recommended calorie intake for winter work is 4,000 to 5,000 calories per day, says WSN. It’s best to take in these calories steadily over the day. Six to eight snacks are far better than two heavy meals. Fifty per cent of these calories should be made out of carbohydrates such as bread and bagels. Cheese, butter, and meats add a valuable fat content to help keep the body warm.
Hydration is also very important in winter work. On average, four litres per day of water or fluids should be consumed. Drinks with caffeine (coffee or soda), or alcohol should be avoided. Caffeine and alcohol restrict blood vessels, impeding the body’s ability to heat itself. In the cold, water bottles will need to be insulated to prevent freezing.
The buddy system
If someone in your group has begun shivering, they have mild hypothermia. Hypothermia is easiest to treat at this stage, so steps should be taken immediately. At this stage, food and dry clothing are the best sources of treatment. A hot drink or meal can do a lot to add heat to the body. An extra layer, hat, or balaclava can capture additional heat leaving the body.
Keeping an eye on each other is the best way to ensure that mild cases of hypothermia are nipped in the bud and do not have the chance to progress to moderate or severe hypothermia.
For more information, visit www.workplacesafetynorth.ca.