Cold weather safety is a topic that should be discussed at length among utility workers who perform any outdoor job functions. That’s because, as with heat stress, cold stress can be a fatal threat. When you’re exposed to freezing temperatures for long periods of time, you run the risk of losing a dangerous amount of body heat, which, if not corrected immediately, could lead to frostbite, hypothermia and even death. There are a number of things to think about prior to and when working in the cold, and while we won’t talk about all of those things in this month’s Tailgate Topic, we’ll cover three of the most important items: dressing properly, staying hydrated and eating right, and keeping an eye on your co-workers.
1. Dress Properly
The golden rule for winter weather preparation is to dress in layers. One of the biggest problems with working in the cold is getting too warm and sweaty. If it’s a cold and windy day, hypothermia can begin within just a few minutes. So, layering is key. Here are some layering basics:
Now that your core is protected from the cold, let’s talk about your extremities. When you get cold, your body reduces blood flow to the skin’s surface to keep your internal organs warm. In the process, though, your fingers, toes, earlobes and the tip of your nose pay the price, experiencing decreased blood flow. Usually when parts of your body get cold, they turn red and begin to hurt. When frostbite begins to occur, however, symptoms include a lack of color and a loss of feeling.
A hard-hat liner will protect your ears from the cold, while a balaclava will protect both your ears and your nose. For your hands, glove liners are a good place to start for finger protection. Your feet can best be protected by either one thick pair or two thin layers of socks, preferably a high-quality wool sock.
A couple of final clothing notes: Good moisture-wicking fabrics include polyester, polypropylene and merino wool. But remember to make sure the clothing you and your crew wear during working hours fully meets the requirements – including the minimum flame-resistant properties – set by your company and needed to safely execute the job at hand.
2. Stay Hydrated and Eat Right
It’s important to stay hydrated whether you’re on or off the job, but it’s especially important when you’re working outdoors in cold weather. While it is true that you can be well hydrated and become hypothermic, a person who is dehydrated will become chilled more quickly and thoroughly and recover more slowly.
Eating right during cold weather work includes increasing your caloric intake. Your body is burning more calories to heat your blood to keep you warm. If you don’t replace those calories, you won’t be able to perform at peak efficiency.
3. Keep an Eye on Your Co-workers
The symptoms of hypothermia and frostbite may not always be noticeable to those suffering from the conditions, so it’s important to know the signs and symptoms to look for to keep your co-workers safe.
Signs of hypothermia include the “umbles” – stumbles, mumbles, fumbles and grumbles – which signify changes in motor coordination and levels of consciousness. Other symptoms are uncontrollable shivering; severe shaking; drowsiness; exhaustion; slurred speech; memory lapses; irrational behavior; and dilated pupils.
Signs and symptoms of frostbite include paleness of the skin; sensation of coldness or pain; pain that disappears after a while as body tissue freezes; and body tissue that becomes increasingly whiter and harder.
If you notice any of the above signs or symptoms, take the proper steps to treat them. These include the following:
Anyone who spends much time outside in cold weather may find themselves at risk of frostbite and hypothermia. Different individuals will have different tolerances to cold, so one size does not fit all when watching for signs and symptoms. Be knowledgeable, be alert and be safe.
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