Guide to Working in Cold Conditions
Working during the winter months is particularly difficult for outdoor workers, including construction site personnel. There are many factors that need to be considered, in addition to the standard health and safety practices normally required.
Both employers and employees, or contractors, should be aware of the risks associated with working in a cold environment and take steps towards reducing its impact.
Being exposed to cold temperatures for prolonged periods of time, can have a harmful effect on humans and their ability to work well. Concentration levels can slip. And due diligence can be overlooked to reduce the time spent on specific tasks. Both of which can have serious implications to the workers themselves and those nearby, through lack of attention and not adhering to site procedures.
Other cold weather hazards include: icy surfaces increasing the likelihood of slips and falls; equipment malfunction which can reduce safety, when transporting heavy loads for example; and operational issues caused by reduced manual dexterity.
In its extreme, the health risks of working in cold conditions can include dehydration, numbness, shivering, frostbite, immersion foot and hypothermia.
And unfortunately, the law doesn't help.
Whilst the legal minimum temperature requirement for indoor workers is set at 16°C (13°C when undertaking arduous work), there is no minimum requirement for outdoor workers.
And bearing in mind that the human body has a core temperature of 37°C – unconsciousness can occur at 31°C, and death below 26°C, it's not something to be taken lightly.
There is one stipulation that comes from the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. They state that all work environments require an assessment of work-related risks, which must include that of working in low temperatures. Once the assessment has been carried out, control measures must be put in place to deal with any identified risks.
In addition, the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007 outlines a client-specific requirement. All clients must provide 'pre-construction information'. Again, to include the possible effects of working in cold (or hot) conditions.
Specifically, Regulation 43 of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007 raises the issue of temperature:
(1) Suitable and sufficient steps shall be taken to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that during working hours, the temperature at any place of work indoors is reasonable having regard to the purpose for which that place is used.
(2) Every place of work outdoors shall, where necessary to ensure the health and safety of persons at work there, be so arranged that, so far as is reasonably practicable and having regard to the purpose for which that place is used and any protective clothing or work equipment provided for the use of any person at work there, it provides protection from adverse weather.
Performing a site risk assessment is straightforward.
The HSE's guidelines explain that both personal and environmental factors should be considered.
For example, personal factors would include:
- The level of activity
- Amount and type of clothing to be worn
- Duration of exposure
Environmental factors would include:
- Wind speed (which can create a harmful wind chill factor)
- Rain, ice and snow
Why is this so important?
The body can lose 25–30 times more heat when in contact with cold, wet objects compared with dry conditions.
So it's important to control these hazards and risk to health.
The HSE's advice is simple:
- Ensure that appropriate protective equipment is issued and used
- Introduce more frequent rest breaks
- Provide facilities for warming up, and encourage the drinking of warm fluids such as soup or hot drinks
- Consider delaying the work if it can be undertaken at a warmer time of the year, without compromising health and safety
- Educate workers about recognising the early symptoms of cold stress – in both themselves and others around them
In addition, adequate clothing is essential.
Wearing layers is recommended – inner thermal liners, followed by other items of clothing that have moisture absorbing capabilities, covered by a wind- and water-proof top layer, and finished off with thermal gloves and liners.
Thereby, regulation of the body temperature can be more easily achieved by adding or removing layers, depending on the task being undertaken.
The best protection against cold-related health risks is to be aware and be prepared.
Workers must recognise the signs and symptoms of overexposure in themselves and those around them. Pain in the extremities and uncontrollable shivering may be the first warning sign.
Working outdoors during winter has its own set of challenges. But when assessed and managed effectively by wearing the correct attire and using specialist heating equipment, the risk to health can be minimised.
Look out for our comprehensive whitepaper on the subject, soon to be released.