Under the Occupational Health and Safety laws, it is the employer’s general duty to take all reasonable precautions for the health and safety of their employees. This includes protecting staff working in cold environments from cold stress-induced injuries.
Canada experiences severe and long winters. Cold is a serious occupational hazard, especially for those working outdoors in construction, agriculture, transportation, oil and gas operations, landscaping, law enforcement, etc. It is crucial that employers have a cold stress exposure control plan in place to protect employees in such industries.
What is cold stress?
Cold stress occurs when the body is no longer able to maintain its internal core temperature (37°C). The body then begins to redirect blood flow from the skin and extremities (arms, legs, hands, feet) to the chest and abdomen. This causes the skin and extremities to cool quickly and increases risk of injuries such as frostbite and hypothermia.
What are the signs of cold stress?
Early signs of cold stress include shivering, tingling or numbness in fingers and toes, frost nips, difficulty moving fingers, toes and hands. Extreme shivering (which suddenly stops), impaired coordination, frost bite and loss of consciousness are signs that cold stress is worsening.
What factors cause cold stress?
Naturally or artificially cooled environments, insufficient or wet (due to sweat or water) clothing, fatigue and health conditions such as hypertension, hypothyroidism and diabetes are some risk factors.
Besides air temperature and humidity, wind chill temperature is another factor affecting those working in a cold environment. Wind chill is the combined effect of cold temperature and wind speed on the exposed skin. It feels colder as the wind speed increases. Employers must know the wind chill temperature to be able to plan a safe work schedule.
How can I protect my staff from cold stress?
To protect your employees working outdoors from cold stress injuries, you should first conduct a risk assessment. Once you identify the environmental and occupational hazards, use the hierarchy of safety controls to plan work schedules. The hierarchy of controls ranks different methods of controlling hazards according to their effectiveness.
Step I: Elimination or substitution of the risk
This is the most effective safety control. You should ask yourself whether it is possible to do the work in a different environment. If it is possible to move the work indoors or postpone it till Spring, you may consider doing so.
Step II: Engineering controls
This method involves modifying your equipment, worksite and work process to minimize the hazards. For example, you could set up heated warming shelters on the worksite that has below-freezing point temperatures. Use of machines and tools that can be operated without having to remove mittens or gloves would also reduce skin exposure to cold.
Step III: Administrative controls
Changing work policies and procedures can also help reduce the threat of cold stress. You could:
- Develop an exposure control plan and set aside heavy work for the warmer part of the day
- Train and educate workers on the symptoms and precautions for types of cold stress, safe work practices, proper clothing, nutrition and basic first aid skills
- Designate one employee per shift who is trained on handling medical emergencies related to cold stress injuries
- Make sure your staff is medically fit to work in severe cold
- Use work rotation to reduce exposure to cold weather. Provide frequent short breaks to prevent workers from over-exerting and sweating
- Reduced activities that limit blood circulation, such as standing or sitting for a long duration.
- Provide warm, sweet beverages or soup on the work site. Avoid alcoholic drinks and coffee as they cause dehydration.
- Create a buddy system where workers are assigned tasks in pairs and can monitor each other for signs of cold stress.
- Ensure you are familiar with the regulations in your province and are working within the safe temperature guidelines.
Step IV: Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
This is the least effective control and must be used in combination with other safety controls. Proper protective clothing while working in cold weather conditions is extremely important. Besides the weather conditions (wet, windy or cold), the nature of the job and physical exertion needed also determine the suitability of the clothing. Workers must:
- Wear several layers of clothing rather than one thick layer. The air trapped between layers is an insulator. All workers must carry a change of clothes in case the clothes they’re wearing get wet.
- Wear synthetic fabrics as the first layer to keep moisture away. The outer layer should be waterproof and wind-resistant if the environment is cold, wet or windy. Avoid cotton close to the skin as it gets damp or wet quickly and takes longer to dry.
- Wear hats or hoods to protect ears and prevent loss of heat from the head. Wear face coverings or knit masks if needed.
- Use insulated and waterproof gloves to keep the hands warm.
- Wear insulated and waterproof boots. Avoid tight-fitting footwear as it restricts blood flow.
- If workers feel hot while working, they can open their jackets but should keep hats and gloves on.
How can I help new workers adjust to cold environments?
You should gradually increase the workload of new workers or those coming back to work after some time away. Allow them frequent breaks in warm, dry areas to help develop tolerance for a cold working environment.
Please note that this article does not replace the Occupational Health and Safety legislation in your province. It should not be used or considered as legal advice. Health and safety officers apply the law based on the facts in the workplace.
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