This time of year, your mantra should be: Let it snow, but keep ‘em safe.
Winter arrives to the delight of many an avid snowboarder or street-plowing professional, but it comes with its own set of challenges, too. These can be especially daunting for skilled trades professionals who often work outdoors or in unheated environments.
The biting cold, icy surfaces, and reduced visibility aren’t just uncomfortable and inconvenient—they’re potentially hazardous to safety and wellbeing. As winter sets in (or ideally, before it sets in), employers should address these challenges head-on and equip themselves with the knowledge and best practices to keep their employees safe.
Before major winter storms start to impact your area with snow and ice accumulation, be prepared and review these winter weather safety tips for keeping your workers safe. Whether your employees work outdoors or in unheated indoor environments, these tips will ensure your employees stay safe, warm, and well-prepared during the winter season. Plus, we’ll offer valuable insights on how to maintain winter equipment and vehicles for optimal performance in harsh conditions.
What Are the Most Threatening Winter Hazards for Skilled Tradespeople?
As winter sets in, employers in skilled trades must act fast to protect their employees from cold-weather hazards in the workplace. But before you put measures in place, take a moment to understand the elements that pose a threat to your employees’ safety at this time.
Know the Signs and Risks of Cold Stress
Workers who are exposed to extreme cold or work in cold environments may be at risk of cold stress, a condition caused by prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. Cold stress can lead to serious health issues, like hypothermia and frostbite.
- Hypothermia occurs when a person’s body loses heat faster than it can produce it. Symptoms may start with shivering and confusion, but they can escalate to a critical stage where shivering stops, and confusion intensifies. In severe cases, hypothermia can be life-threatening. The best way to prevent hypothermia is to make your employees well-aware of the causes and symptoms, and to enforce a dress code. Insulated clothing that’s layered to retain warmth is a must. Additionally, employers should provide designated warm areas where employees can take breaks to prevent overexposure.
- Frostbite is another significant concern, especially for skilled tradespeople who work outdoors. Frostbite can cause permanent damage to the body, and in severe cases can lead to amputation. The risk of frostbite is increased in people with reduced blood circulation and those not dressed properly for extremely cold temperatures. To prevent frostbite, employers should heavily encourage employees come strapped with proper cold-weather gear, including insulated gloves and boots. Remind employees to regularly check their extremities for signs of frostbite, such as numbness or skin discoloration, and take immediate action if detected. Move the person to a warm room or vehicle, remove any wet clothing, and give warm, sweetened drinks if alert, like sweetened tea and hot chocolate.
Winter is the Season of Slips, Trip, and Falls
Icy surfaces during winter pose a substantial risk of slips, trips, and falls, which can injure your employees. To prevent these, train your employees to follow a three-step process:
- Recognize the hazard: Identify conditions that could lead to a slip, trip, or fall.
- Evaluate the hazard: Examine the situation and determine what level of risk it presents and who it affects.
- Control the hazard: Avoid the risk by removing the hazard, such as cleaning a spill, or implementing safety equipment and procedures like installing handrails on an elevated platform.
Cold Weather Can Mean Reduced Visibility
As we head into winter, the reduced visibility that comes with darker days and wetter weather puts workers at increased risk—especially when operating or working around vehicles and heavy machinery. Poor visibility makes it incredibly difficult to see workers and their equipment, putting them and those nearby at an increased risk of serious injury or death.
One study showed that the most common visibility-related hazards are pedestrian vehicle incidents and being struck by objects and/or equipment, with more struck-by-vehicle deaths involving construction workers than any other occupation.
In addition to the obvious cause of limited visibility due to fewer daylight hours, adverse weather conditions are also at play.
On their own, strong winds, heavy rain, fog, and snow greatly affect the chances of an accident occurring on a worksite. Add the increased darkness experienced during the cooler months and your worksite becomes an increasingly hazardous environment.
Employers should recognize that these natural challenges are an integral part of winter work and plan accordingly to ensure employee safety.
Winter Safety Tips to Prevent Workplace Accidents and Injuries
Tip #1: Teach workers the art of layering.
OSHA doesn’t require employers to provide their workers with ordinary clothing used solely for protection from weather such as winter coats or jackets, parkas, gloves, rubber boots, or hats. However, effective worker safety risk management in winter conditions includes teaching workers how to dress properly for the cold.
Here’s a great receipt for cold-weather safety and coziness:
- Wear at least three layers of loose-fitting clothing:
- An inner layer of wool, silk, or synthetic (polypropylene) to keep moisture away from the body
- A middle layer of wool or synthetic to provide insulation even when wet
- An insulated rain-resistant outer layer with some ventilation to protect from wind and rain and prevent overheating.
- Throw on a hat that covers the head and ears
- Add insulated, water-resistant gloves
- Step into insulated, waterproof boots with good rubber treads
- Top it off with a knit mask that covers the face and mouth, if needed
The most effective way to make sure your employees are geared up appropriately for the winter chill is to supply them with winter weather gear. Again, even though it’s not required by law, this can go a long way to controlling what you can control when it comes to safety on the job site.
Tip #2: Build awareness of cold stress.
Dressing appropriately can’t always prevent winter hazards from occurring, so educating your team about cold stress is just as important.
Make sure your workers are aware of the risks and symptoms of cold stress mentioned above, like hypothermia and frostbite.
It’s worth your while to offer safety training programs so your employees feel confident to recognize the signs of cold stress and how to respond. Trainings should include:
- Environmental conditions that can lead to cold stress, like cold temperatures, high or cold wind, and dampness.
- How to recognize the early signs of cold stress, like shivering, numbness, and confusion.
- First aid processes and procedures when cold stress is identified.
- Risk factors that increase the likelihood of cold stress like predisposing health issues (hypertension, hypothyroidism, and diabetes), inadequate physical fitness, and exhaustion.
- How to select proper clothing for cold, wet, and windy conditions.
Pro tip: Action Group Staffing offers safety training programs designed to equip employees with the knowledge and skills they need to stay safe and productive in warehouse and manufacturing jobs.
Tip #3: Winterize worksites to prevent slips, trips, and falls.
Avoiding slips on icy surfaces might seem obvious during the winter, but that doesn’t mean construction, manufacturing, and skilled-trade companies shouldn’t take every possible step to prevent slips, trips, and falls.
- Encourage employees to promptly report any potential slip or trip hazards to their supervisor.
- Implement a spill cleanup procedure and provide clear instructions on using cleaning products safely without creating slippery conditions.
- Regularly inspect and clear walkways, stairs, and lobbies of obstructions like cords, wires, empty boxes, and clutter that could pose tripping hazards.
- Ensure floor mats are properly maintained and lie flat to prevent wrinkles or bunching.
- Encourage employees to use handrails when going up and down stairs.
- Clean ladder rungs, steps, and feet before use.
- Enforce load limits specified for each ladder.
Just as your employees should stay on top of industry best practices, the same goes for you. Keep up with OSHA protocols and best practices for workplace safety measures so you can prevent accidents and injuries year-round.
Tip #4: Improve site visibility with reflective clothing and proper lighting.
Just because there are fewer daylight hours and more inclement weather in the winter doesn’t mean work can come to a halt. Workers need to see where they are going and what they’re doing on their worksite at all times of year.
Make reflective gear a requirement.
First, make sure your workforce is equipped to wear reflective attire so that they’re visible not only in standard lighting, but also in the glare of headlights when machinery or vehicles are present onsite. Offer a range of options, including coats, trousers, jackets, and hoodies, to accommodate individual preferences and the nature of the work. Make it mandatory for all employees to wear high-vis workwear from the moment they enter the site until they leave.
Bring in lighting reinforcements.
According to findings published by Safety + Health magazine, construction workers who begin their shift in the evening or at night are more likely to sustain serious injuries. Efficient lighting on worksites helps ensure worker safety and health and enables them to detect and avoid hazards. That means your employees can get the job done safer and faster.
There are several different types of temporary lights that your team can make use of during the dark hours:
- Floodlights provide broad, high-intensity illumination over a large area, making them essential for overall site visibility and safety. They are commonly mounted on poles or buildings to ensure even coverage of the construction area.
- Spotlights offer focused and concentrated lighting, making them ideal for highlighting specific work zones or providing extra illumination for detailed tasks. They are versatile and can be directed precisely where needed.
- LED lights are known for their energy efficiency, longevity, and durability. They have become increasingly popular in construction site lighting due to their ability to provide bright and reliable illumination while consuming less power and requiring minimal maintenance.
How to Protect and Maintain Your Equipment in Winter
The winter season demands extra precautions for personal safety as well as extra-thorough equipment and vehicle maintenance. Here’s how you can ensure that heavy equipment in your workplace is ready for the season and operates smoothly and safely throughout.
How to Winterize Employee Vehicles
One of the first and most important steps employers can take to facilitate safe winter driving is ensuring employee vehicles are properly serviced and maintained before the winter season begins.
Vehicles should receive a full tune-up and be checked for any manufacturer recalls. When serviced by a qualified mechanic, special attention should be paid to the car battery, windshield wipers, lights, cooling system, and tire tread.
In addition to preparing vehicles to handle the ice, snow, and cold, employees should also have emergency supplies in their vehicles should they find themselves stuck or stranded in winter weather.
At a minimum, a winter car emergency kit should include:
- Snow tools including a snow shovel, broom, and ice scraper handy.
- Traction aids like sand or kitty litter which can work wonders when you’re stuck.
- Jumper cables give your battery a boost in a pinch.
- Lighting sources like flashlights, flares, and emergency markers.
- Blankets to keep you toasty.
- Cell phone charger as a lifeline in emergencies.
- Extra food and water for worst-case scenarios when you might get stuck or stranded.
Cold-Weather Care for Vehicles, Tools and Equipment
Your equipment operators probably have a daily inspection checklist that they go through before beginning work. In cold weather, they may need to be aware of some additional information or precautions while they perform their checks. Here’s how you can ensure they’re ready for the cold months ahead.
- Check the filters: Dirty or clogged air, fuel, and hydraulic filters can make equipment harder to start and can cause power loss during operation.
- Take care of your batteries: Cold weather causes batteries to discharge more quickly and charge more slowly. Workers should know never to charge or jump-start a frozen battery; wait until the battery warms up to 40 degrees Fahrenheit first.
- Keep track of fluid levels: Freezing temperatures can cause fluids, including hydraulic fluids, to thicken up, which increases the pressure on hoses and seals. Check carefully for any signs of leakage that could indicate a failed line or seal.
- Check tires regularly: Pneumatic tires may need a little more air to maintain the correct pressure in cold temperatures, and both solid and pneumatic tires should be checked to ensure that the tread is sufficient for winter operating conditions.
- Check the lights and wipers: Both lights and wipers are more important in winter when light levels are lower, and precipitation and condensation can affect visibility. Make sure they’re working properly and that headlights are clean.
- Check the heater and defroster: Do this especially when it first starts to get cold, since the heater will not have been used in a while.
- Lubricate moving parts: Moving parts can freeze and seize, so make sure that everything is well-oiled in the winter and keep your coolant—which also functions as a lubricant—topped off.
- Warm up before you start up: Hydraulics especially need a chance to warm up, so operators should let equipment idle for a few minutes and then should operate each hydraulic function to circulate the oil.
Don’t Leave Your People Out in the Cold—Partner with Action Group This Winter
Like it or not, accommodating your workforce and worksites for the winter season is a very real and urgent necessity for manufacturing companies. By understanding the specific challenges of cold weather work and following the winter safety tips outlined above—such as providing appropriate clothing, educating about cold stress, and ensuring equipment and visibility—you can create a work environment that’s safe, warm, and conducive to productivity.
At Action Group Staffing, we are committed to helping companies create safe and comfortable work environments for their employees during the cold-weather months.
Contact us today to learn more about our orientation and safety training programs. Our programs are designed to equip employees with the knowledge and skills they need to stay safe and productive in warehouse and manufacturing jobs. Together, we can ensure a successful, productive, and safe winter for your workforce.