By: Thomas H. Welby Geoffrey S. Pope Published: October 2018

Preparing for Construction Work in Winter Weather

Summer alas has flown, and we are now moving into the fall, with winter and its cruel conditions just over the horizon.  Working in winter weather presents real challenges in terms of safety, and you need to plan ahead, if you are to meet those challenges successfully.  Tasks, projects, and jobsites should be evaluated for potential exposure to harsh winter weather, and plans made and employees trained accordingly, in advance.

PPE, in the form of clothing, footwear headgear and gloves appropriate to the temperature and prevailing weather conditions, is probably the most critical line of defense against stress from winter weather.  Clothing should usually be layered, and the head, hands and feet appropriately covered.  Fabrics that wick perspiration away from the skin are a good idea for the first layer.  It is indispensable to train employees on the proper use of protective clothing and equipment, and other precautions to take during cold-weather work.

To protect against both frostbite and slips, trips, and falls, insulated, waterproof or water-resistant boots or overshoes with good rubber treads should be mandatory for your field employees.

Employees should be instructed to keep an eye out for patches of ice, and to exercise heightened caution in mounting or dismounting vehicles or equipment.  Areas in which equipment and tools are stored should be kept clear of snow, ice or mud accumulations.

Especially when there is snow or ice on the ground, winter is a time for particular care in driving (and operating equipment).  Speeds must be reduced to those appropriate in light of road conditions (and reduced visibility, if applicable).  Drivers should be advised that foggy conditions create a visual illusion of traveling more slowly than you truly are.  Also, tailgating is especially dangerous when traction is impaired due to roadway conditions.

Workers should be advised to consider increasing their caloric intake by 10-15% in sub-freezing conditions, and to drink plenty of water and warm, sweet fluids.  Workers generally, and especially older workers, should be encouraged to consult their physicians if they have diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, or other health conditions that might make them more vulnerable to dropping temperatures, or restrict their working in cold weather conditions.  Alcohol consumption — never a good idea when working on a construction site — is especially bad in wintertime, since it contributes to dehydration, enhances heat loss, impairs judgment, and reduces sensitivity to cold.

To the extent possible, outdoor work in winter should be scheduled for the warmest hours of the day.  Weather forecasts should be monitored regularly (as in all seasons) to avoid your being caught off-guard by the unexpected arrival of severe weather.  If a blizzard or major storm should be approaching, get the work covered, all equipment etc. secured, and your workforce home (or at least on the roads, if the same are passable) before the storm arrives.  Roadways into and out of the jobsite must be kept cleared and opened at all times.

At the beginning of each shift, time should be built in, to permit stretching, and at least a 5-minute warm-up, before anyone ventures into the cold outdoor conditions.  This helps to counteract the tendency of muscles to tighten up and contract in the cold (and improves performance, while helping to avoid injury).  Another important thing to do at the beginning of every shift is to have your supervisors inspect the site, to check for, and report on, potential problems related to snow, ice, or actual or anticipated severe weather or extreme temperatures.

Evaluate whether engineering controls (barriers to shield against the wind, space heaters, insulating material on metal equipment handles, etc.) could be deployed to good advantage.  Portable heaters, although potentially useful, can create hazards.  Heaters should be inspected by competent technicians before use, and used in the correct manner, in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions.  Among other things, heaters should be placed on fire-resistant surfaces with plentiful ventilation, with their hoses unobstructed and clear.  Combustible materials should be kept away from them.  Propane tanks should be placed upright on stable surfaces.  While securing them is important, the use of metal to do so is probably not a good idea, as metal on metal can result in sparks.

Even in favorable weather, falls remain the #1 danger in construction.  The danger is compounded in cold weather, especially if it is necessary to work on elevated surfaces where snow and/or ice may be present.  Without minimizing the dangers from slip-and-fall occurrences on snowy surfaces at ground level, work on elevated surfaces should be avoided during winter weather conditions, if at all possible.

If roofwork or other work on elevated surfaces absolutely must be performed, special controls must be put into place.  You need to have a thorough and conscientious check of all platforms, fall protection and edge protection, and the work surfaces need to be de-iced.

It should go without saying that, if there is the slightest weakness in your fall protection training, or in the enforcement of your work rules requiring fall protection, you need to correct it before permitting anyone to go on a snow-covered roof in windy winter weather.  Consider doubling up on fall protection, for example by deploying safety nets, in addition to having workers use lanyards and harnesses.  Winter is also a time for redoubled caution (and perhaps a toolbox talk or two) in the safe use of ladders, and avoiding energized power lines.  Ladders, of course, as well as scaffolds must be well-maintained, protected and kept clear of snow and ice, and covered at the end of the shift.

Walkways in general (whether elevated or not) should be kept clear of snow and ice, and salt or sand applied and re-applied, to reduce the danger of slip and fall incidents.  Overhead surfaces should be kept clear or snow and ice that might fall on persons working below.  Icicles should be (carefully) removed if practicable; and, if it is not practicable to remove them, areas should be roped off, to prevent anyone having to work or walk beneath them.  Hoses should not be left running, as the water will likely freeze, and increase the slip hazard.  Areas that might have unseen ice or snow underfoot should be kept well-lighted.

Entrances to premises (especially access steps) and handrails should be kept clear of snow and ice, also well-lighted, and workers instructed to exercise caution in entering and exiting premises.

Sheltered facilities (heated sheds, trailers and/or vans) should be provided, where workers can go to warm up, get warm beverages, and dry or change their clothing.  It is important to change out of wet clothing at once, in order to avoid hypothermia and frostbite.  Workers should be educated concerning symptoms of cold-related stresses (numbness, shivering, frostbite, and trenchfoot, a/k/a immersion foot) and instructed to check their extremities at regular intervals, to detect numb or hard areas that might indicate frostbite.  First-aid equipment and supplies should be kept close at hand, and telephone numbers for emergency assistance (medical and other) should be on every supervisor’s cell phone.

Workers should generally work in pairs in severe or cold weather, and told to take prompt action if they experience, or see anyone else who appears to be experiencing, symptoms of cold stress, such as changes in behavior patterns, numbness in the extremities (including cheeks, ears, and the tip of the nose), changes in skin or lip color, or shaking.  Affected individuals should be brought indoors as soon as possible, and emergency medical attention summoned if necessary.

 As with most health and safety precautions, advance planning, preparation and training for performing construction work safely in wintertime are essential.  While preparedness in responding to potential cold-related health emergencies is paramount, you need to conduct appropriate training in advance of the onset of winter weather, and underscore the main points (PPE, attentiveness to possible symptoms, extra diligence in fall protection, the safe use of scaffolds, ladders, etc.) repeatedly.

Finally, resign yourself to the reality that work will proceed more slowly in cold, snowy winter conditions than when conditions are ideal.  It’s a safety requirement, and an inevitability as well. 


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