By: Geoffrey S. Pope Published: October 2019

Get Ready for Winter: Severe Weather Precautions for the Construction Jobsite

Summer has flown by and away, and already Halloween stuff is appearing in the stores.  Before you know it, the year-end holidays will be upon us.  If your field operations involve outdoor work over the winter, you need to do some advance planning, to avoid being left unprepared.  Even if you have experience working in snow and very cold temperatures, it’s a good idea to work with your supervisors, and your rank-and-file employees, to do the planning and refresher training needed to minimize the risks associated with working under wintry conditions.

Primary hazards. obviously, include hypothermia and frostbite.  These are invisible, but potentially lethal, dangers.  To avoid them, work only during the warmest hours of the day.  Wear warm, layered clothing (with synthetics that wick away perspiration closest to the skin).  Warm gloves, hats and hoods are essential, and footwear should allow for one thick or two thin pairs of socks.  PPE should also include eye protection, as ice and snow produce excessive ultraviolet rays.  Job tasks should be planned to as to break them down into component parts, to allow frequent breaks to be taken.  Hot foods and drinks (but not caffeinated beverages) should be consumed.  With appropriate caveats for any who are diabetic, or have high blood pressure (most prepared soups are loaded with sodium) caloric foods, such as pasta and hot soups, are recommended. Heated, sheltered warm-up/break areas should be provided, and a “buddy system” implemented.  It’s important to avoid having workers off by themselves, working alone. 

All should be trained to recognize the following as symptoms of hypothermia, and emergency responders summoned at once if they are detected:  cool skin, slow, irregular breathing, reduced pulse, uncontrollable shivering, severe shaking, rigid muscles, drowsiness, exhaustion, slurred speech, and memory lapses.  As on any job, supervisors should know where the nearest medical facilities are located, and should have the numbers of emergency responders on their cell phones.

Similarly, the following are symptoms of frostbite, which should be taught to all:  paleness of the skin, sensation of coldness and pain that subsides as the tissues freeze, and increasing whiteness and hardness of the skin.

Generally, workers who have hypertension, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease are at greater risk of experiencing cold stress.  Any who are ill, or taking medication, should be directed to consult a medical professional.

Supervisors should walk the site before the start of each shift, and problems requiring immediate attention addressed at once.  Snow shovels and gloves must be kept convenient to where they will be needed.  Snow and ice must not be permitted to accumulate on surfaces, especially walkways, entrance steps, scaffolds, and roofs.  Snow and ice must be cleared off at once (or work suspended if it’s coming down too fast to be cleared without delay, or if visibility drops below acceptable levels) and sand or salt applied.  In addition to removing snow and ice where it could produce falls, it’s necessary to ensure that accumulated snow — and icicles — be kept off overhead areas.  Footwear must be non-slip or non-skid, and hard hats should always be worn.  The use of ladders should be kept to a minimum; and, if used, they must be free of ice, snow, and other materials that may cause slips or falls.  If temperatures are to fall below freezing, ladders should be stored indoors, or covered at the end of the shift.

If portable heaters are employed, care must be taken to ensure electrical safety or adequate ventilation, as applicable.  Heaters must be placed on fire-resistant surfaces, and their hoses must remain clear and unobstructed.  Combustible materials must be kept at a safe distance, as well.

Falls are the #1 cause of fatalities (and OSHA citations) on construction sites.  Neglecting fall protection is always a bad idea, but to do so in winter weather is simply insane.  Consider a “belt and suspenders” approach, requiring the use of both individual fall arrest systems and safety rails (especially if work must be performed on elevated surfaces for extended periods).  

Snow shoveling is itself a hazardous activity, and poses risks of exhaustion, dehydration, back injuries, and heart attacks.  Workers should be required to warm up before shoveling, to scoop snow in small amounts, and to push instead of lifting to the extent possible.  This is generally not a task for older workers, and workers of all ages should “lift with their legs,” and take frequent breaks while performing it.

If you use electric snow blowers, make sure that they are properly grounded.  Users must be trained not to clear jams while the equipment is powered on.  Fuel should be added before using the equipment, not when the engine is running or hot.

Vehicular safety and work zone traffic control require extra attention under winter conditions.  OSHA has a “Safe Winter Driving” page you should consult, but particular attention should be given to vehicular and equipment maintenance, hazards associated with driving on snow-covered or icy surfaces, and deploying signs, cones, barrels and barriers to protect workers.  Workers commuting to and from the jobsite in their cars should have blankets, water, food and emergency equipment in their vehicles, and be instructed to remain in a disabled vehicle (unless help is visible within 100 yards) and to ensure that the exhaust pipe is kept clear of snow, and a downwind window cracked slightly for ventilation.  Of course, work zones where vehicles or equipment are operated in proximity to persons on foot must be well-lit, and high-visibility vests should be worn.

Work in harsh winter weather is very challenging.  Some measures required are obvious as a matter of common sense, but advance planning and training are essential nonetheless.

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