What employers need to know to mitigate risks during the winter months
With the colder months upon us, workers and employers need to be aware of the risks associated with cold stress, and what can be done to mitigate associated risks.
First and foremost, organizations where workers are at risk of cold weather injuries should start by doing a cold stress assessment.
“The basic assessment starts with looking at temperature and wind chill, and the conditions that you’re likely going to be working in depending on the circumstances,” says Barry Nakahara, Senior Manager, Prevention Field Services, WorkSafeBC.
There is a lot of guidance in occupational health and safety regulations in relation to this assessment, notably in relation to wind chill and temperature which are the two predominant factors.
“You really need to start considering managing how work is being done, and how much a worker is being exposed to in terms of the cold temperatures,” says Nakahara.
The greatest risk will be for employers who have workers in outdoor settings – generally for indoor work, workers are going to be protected from the elements (there may be an exception, for example, for warehouses which are not well heated, though workers may be protected from the wind to varying degrees).
Workers in sectors such as construction, utility and maintenance, and transportation can be affected, as can recreational instructors, operators and attendants.
“Anytime you’ve got workers working well into the sub zero temperatures, that cold stress assessment should be thought about and considered,” says Nakahara.
Working in cold weather can cause a number of injuries.
WorkSafeBC says that between 2016 and 2020, a total of 56 claims were accepted for injuries related to cold stress.
Nakahara says that frostbite is the most common and acute injury, affecting notably fingers, toes and exposed skin.
“Hypothermia and other types of injuries can occur, hypothermia in particular is a risk in wet environments and is a good example of [an injury] that happens even when it is not all that cold,” he says.
According to multiple sources, dehydration is also a risk even during the colder months.
People may be less thirsty in the winter and thus drink less water; wearing thick layers, or doing work like shoveling snow may also lead workers to sweat more
Workers at risk should be sure to stay hydrated, and avoid drinking coffee, alcohol or tea which can contribute to dehydration.
“In extreme conditions – whether it is hot or cold – [you] need to ensure your body’s proper function, and respond and recover to the best of [your] abilities,” says Nakahara.
WorkSafeBC says that there are four main controls to ensure cold weather safety:
Firstly, eliminating the hazard when possible, or shifting work around so that it can be done in a different environment.
Secondly, engineering controls, so making physical modifications to facilities, equipment and/or processes to reduce exposure to cold weather risks.
Thirdly, administrative controls: can work practices and policies be changed to reduce risk, and so workers do not have to exert themselves in the cold weather.
“Depending on your workplace, more specific approaches can be employed,” says Nakahara. This can depend on the type of work you’re doing, the nature of the workplace, etc. “The options are up to the employers to determine what is going to work best and protect their workers.”
Lastly, WorkSafeBC says that personal protective equipment (PPE) should be “the final consideration when doing a risk assessment.” Gear such as personal heaters or heating pads, layered clothing, head coverings, hand and foot protection, slip protection, etc. should be considered.