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Thermal Stress: Working Safely in the Cold

Learn about the dangers of cold work for your employees and the importance of employer awareness.

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  • #winter
Thermal Stress: Working Safely in the Cold

Employees who work in cold environments, indoor or outdoors, are confronted with difficult conditions, sometimes dangerous for their health and safety, and even deadly in certain circumstances. In Quebec, low temperatures, wind and precipitation (sleet, rain, snow) are risk factors to be considered during winter in order to protect workers

Recognizing hazards to workers’ health

To help you identify and prevent occupational injuries, here are the health hazards for your workers.

  • Frostbite: redness, swelling, tingling and pain
  • Superficial frostbite: frostbite of the superficial layers of the skin that become white, numb and hard
  • Frostbite: tissue temperature drops below freezing or blood circulation is impaired causing patchy inflammation of the skin and mild pain
  • Severe frostbite: tissue damage causing no pain or burning or tingling sensation and blistering
  • Extreme frostbite: can lead to gangrene that may require amputation of affected areas
  • Immersion foot/trench foot: occurs when feet are wet or cold for an extended period of time causing tingling, numbness, itching, pain, swelling and blisters
  • Hypothermia: generalized injury and the most serious form of cold injury (medical emergency. This can be fatal

It is important to act quickly and make your workers aware of the signs and symptoms of these hazards. The warning signs of hypothermia are nausea, fatigue, irritability, euphoria, dizziness, pain in the extremities (hands, ears, feet) and intense chills. In addition, the victim is often unable to realize his or her condition. It is therefore strongly recommended that workers in a cold environment always be paired to monitor symptoms.

As a general rule, it is important to keep in mind that certain parts of the body are more at risk, such as fingers, toes, nose, cheeks and ears, because they lack important muscles capable of producing heat.

Dangers for the safety of workers

Several factors associated with cold weather can contribute to the occurrence of accidents in the workplace:

– Slippery floors (both indoors and outdoors)
– Contact with cold metal surfaces
– Increased strain and fatigue (due to increased energy expenditure)
– Loss of dexterity or tactile sensitivity due to cold and wearing of gloves and cold weather clothing
– Difficulty getting around outdoors (in the snow, on foot or in a car)
– Increased ergonomic risks

In the case of hypothermia, the safety hazard is particularly related to decreased alertness and ability to make rational decisions.

Means of Prevention

Obviously, several preventive measures can be implemented to counter injuries and disorders related to working in the cold, as well as to reduce the number of accidents associated with them.

Here are the suggestions of our team of OHS prevention experts:

– Avoid or limit the time spent working in the cold
– Monitor and check the temperature at least every 4 hours when the temperature is below freezing
– Organize the work well, adjust the pace or rate of work (neither too low, to avoid a chill, nor too high, to avoid excessive sweating that would wet clothing)
– Provide suitable work equipment (made of heat insulating materials) and work tools that can be handled with gloves
– Providing protective clothing (or ensuring that it is worn) at temperatures of 4° C or lower. We recommend wearing several layers of warm clothing and a windproof outer layer

– Provide adequate head, foot and hand protection
– Ensure workers have a way to warm up such as a vehicle or building when the temperature is -7°C or lower
– Have emergency procedures and ensure that at least one trained person is available at all times during cold work
– Pair workers to monitor symptoms
– Allow more acclimatization time for staff
– Train managers, supervisors and workers on symptoms, safe work practices, warming techniques, proper clothing and cold injury procedures

Do you have questions about workplace risk prevention? Contact our occupational health and safety experts.

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