Do you work outside in cold temperatures, like roadwork or emergency services? What about moving care recipients between locations, or simply driving to and from work in icy conditions? Consider the hazards that come with winter weather.
Working in Extreme Temperatures
In a cold environment, most of the body’s energy is used to keep the internal core temperature warm. Over time, the body will begin to shift blood flow from the outer skin and extremities (hands, feet, arms and legs) to the core (chest and abdomen). This shift allows the exposed skin and the extremities to cool rapidly and increases the risk of frostbite and hypothermia.
Some of the risk factors that contribute to cold stress are:
- Dressing improperly
- Preexisting health conditions, such as hypertension, hypothyroidism and diabetes
- Poor physical conditioning
While hypothermia and frostbite may be commonly known effects of cold temperatures, what do you know about trench foot or immersion foot? Trench foot or immersion foot is caused by prolonged exposure to wet and cold temperatures. It can occur at temperatures as high as 15°C if the feet are constantly wet. Non-freezing injury occurs because wet feet lose heat 25-times faster than dry feet. To prevent heat loss, the body constricts the blood vessels to shut down circulation in the feet and the skin tissue begins to die because of a lack of oxygen and nutrients and the buildup of toxic products.
Be sure to watch for signs and symptoms of cold stress and illnesses, including:
- Weakness, stumbling and fumbling
- Severe shivering (Note: when someone who has been shivering stops, this can be seen as an extreme sign of hypothermia)
- Pain in extremities, including hands, feet and ears
- Skin turning numb and white
- Mumbling and grumbling
Preventing Winter-Related Incidents
According to the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA), employers have a duty under section 25(2)(h) and supervisors under section 27(2)(c) to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker.
Ontario’s Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development advises employers to implement a cold stress prevention program to maintain a healthy work environment in colder weather. This includes the training of workers on cold-related hazards, how to identify early signs and symptoms of cold stress, prevention of cold-related injuries and illnesses, and how to act on wind chill warnings or cold alert notices issued by Environment Canada.
An effective cold stress prevention program and related policies should consider the following:
- An acceptable wind chill index for outdoor working conditions. A wind chill calculator can be used to determine this.
- How workers symptoms will be monitored and incidents of cold-related illnesses will be investigated
- First aid and emergency responses
- How often workers will get a break from the cold
- Where workers experiencing early signs of cold stress can go to warm up
- How to provide first aid treatment
- Any required personal protective equipment or appropriate clothing, and if this is provided
- If and when portable heaters or wind guard structures are required on the job
- Safe driving in cold or icy temperatures
- If workers are working alone. Employers may want to activate a buddy system to have workers keep an eye on each other for early signs of cold stress or in case workers need breaks or medical attention.
- If workers should bring water or warm liquids to work in order to keep hydrated, and if they are provided
It is also important to note that workers have the right to refuse work. In instances where the worker is feeling uncomfortable or unsafe continuing to work in their current working environment, employers should have a policy in place to respond and ensure the safety of the worker and others.
Dressing for the Cold
Dressing appropriately is of great importance for working outdoors in cold temperatures. Different types of fabric and insulation work differently in different temperatures. For example, cotton will not keep you warm when the garment becomes wet, while wool, silk and synthetic materials won’t change their protection level. The best option to keep warm is to layer and avoid tight-fitting clothing.
An example of appropriate clothing and effective layering would be:
- An inner layer of wool, silk or synthetic to keep moisture away from the body
- A middle layer of wool or synthetic to provide insulation, even when wet
- An outer wind and rain protection layer that allows some ventilation to prevent overheating
- A hat or hood to help keep your whole body warmer. Hats reduce the amount of body heat that escapes from your head.
- A knit mask to cover the face and mouth
- Insulated gloves to protect the hands (water resistant if necessary)
- Insulated and waterproof boots
Common Winter Hazards
Slips, Trips and Falls
Slips, trips and falls are common workplace occurrences that can result in serious injuries to workplace parties, especially during the colder months, and has been named a priority issue for Ontario’s health and safety system.
PSHSA’s Slips, Trips, and Falls Tool Kit offers free resources to support employers in preventing slips, trips and falls. In this tool kit you will find a checklist for working on elevated platforms, information about ladder safety, and an infographic on slips, trips and fall prevention. Employers are encouraged to download the tool kit and use the resources to hold a 15-minute safety talk with employees.
Our Slips, Trips and Fall Prevention eLearning is another great resource to learn more on the prevention of fall-related injuries. The course covers topics such as:
- The prevalence and impact of slips, trips and falls in the workplace and the need for prevention
- Legislative requirements for supporting slips, trips and falls prevention in your workplace
- Duties and responsibilities of workplace parties (worker, supervisor and employer) in preventing slips trips and falls
- How to recognize, assess and control slip, trip and fall hazards, and evaluate these controls
- Goals and components of a slips, trips and falls prevention program and how to implement it in your workplace
Driving safely for the conditions, including ice, snow and slush, should be on the top of your mind every time you get behind the wheel. Here are some tips for safe winter driving:
- Slow down
- Use winter tires
- Top-up windshield washer fluid
- Top-up the gas tank or ensure your electric vehicle is sufficiently charged
- Clear all snow from the hood, roof, windows and lights, and clear all windows of fog or ice before beginning to drive.
- If visibility becomes poor, find a place to safely pull off the road as soon as possible.
Pack an emergency car kit which includes:
- Sand, salt or cat litter (non-clumping)
- Additional antifreeze/windshield washer fluid
- Tow rope
- Jumper cables
- Fire extinguisher
- Warning light or road flares
The OHSA applies in vehicles if employees are operating them over the course of their employment. A driving safety program will help workers become better drivers - on and off the job. PSHSA’s Driving Safety for Workers fact sheet is available to help promote awareness, policies and practices for safe driving among healthcare employers, supervisors and workers, along with relevant resources.
Cold-related illnesses and incidents can happen to anyone, so it is important to take the necessary precautions when working outdoors this winter. For more resources on working in cold weather, or support with developing plans and best practices, contact your consultant.
Working Outdoors | Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development
Temperature Conditions – Legislation | Canadian Centre of Occupational Health and Safety
Cold Environments – General | Canadian Centre of Occupational Health and Safety
Cold Environments - Working in the Cold | Canadian Centre of Occupational Health and Safety
Cold Environments - Health Effects and First Aid | Canadian Centre of Occupational Health and Safety
Thermal Comfort for Office Work | Canadian Centre of Occupational Health and Safety
Public Weather Alerts for Canada | Environment Canada
Wind Chill Index | Environment Canada
Be prepared for winter weather | Environment Canada
Be Smart in the Winter | Environment Canada
Before a Severe Storm | Government of Canada
Your Emergency Plan | Government of Canada
Storm Surges | Government of Canada