Last reviewed 24 December 2020
Laura King looks at how to improve cold weather safety for outdoor workers and those on construction sites.
The UK’s weather is predictably unpredictable, but this should not mean that the impact of the elements is left unmanaged. For those regularly working outside the effect of bad weather is well understood. However, cold and wet conditions still do have serious consequences for workers, and with the UK’s weather so fickle, it is never a bad time to review cold weather processes.
Drops in temperature can be hazardous to a person’s health, and the cold can exacerbate underlying problems as well as increase the risk of other conditions. For example, the Health and Safety Executive advises that:
some workers might be more vulnerable to the cold and suffer from asthma, bronchitis and painful or stiff joints
drops in core body temperature and cold extremities can lead to chilblains, frostbite and hypothermia
the cold can result in slower reaction times and loss in concentration which can lead to mistakes being made and the likelihood of accidents increasing
workers in cold conditions are more likely to develop hand–arm vibration syndrome.
Some suggestions follow to help reduce injury and prevent cold weather-related health problems.
Timing of work
As always, the first option to help protect workers against the cold is prevention. Can the job be delayed and done when the weather gets better or at a different time of year? It might be possible to rephase the work so that jobs that are more difficult or dangerous in the cold can be carried out at a later date. If re-timing is not possible, limiting the hours that workers are outside will help, as will adjusting work patterns so that particularly cold jobs are rotated between workers.
Evaluate jobs for exposure to cold
The cold makes jobs harder and injuries more likely. The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 and the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 require the work site to be risk-assessed for cold and arranged so that people are protected.
Furthermore, when bad weather hits, the site should be checked on a regular basis for new hazards and to accommodate changes due to the inclement weather. Lighting levels on site should be considered to ensure that employees can work safely and be seen.
Personal protective equipment
It is quite obvious that the cold can affect the welfare of an employee and impact on their ability to do a job safely. As such, mitigating measures — such as the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) — need to be in place under health and safety legislation.
Appropriate PPE that meets the relevant British Standards should be issued free of charge. PPE can make a huge difference to an employee’s comfort and ability to keep warm. It might be worth considering the following.
Make sure that boots have plenty of grip to reduce the likelihood of slips and trips. A good pair of boots will have been tested for slip resistance and have a self-cleaning tread.
Might it be necessary to provide multiple items of PPE if the weather is impacting its effectiveness? For example, in wet weather several pairs of gloves might be needed.
Protect eyes in cold, windy conditions. Cold wind can cause watery eyes which can impair vision and lead to accidents.
Use gloves that provide thermal protection and water resistance. This will make working in cold and wet conditions much more comfortable.
As nights draw in, high-vis clothing is even more important to help workers be seen on site, especially where there is operational plant. It will also improve the visibility of workers in bad weather, such as fog and heavy rain.
Wearing the correct clothing
Workers should be encouraged to wear the right gear to help them stay warm and dry. If a uniform is provided it should be designed with the same principle in mind. Tips for cold-weather clothing include the following.
Wearing layers. Wearing several loose layers will trap air and improve insulation. Layers are also useful as they can be taken off and put back on again as conditions change.
Using base layers that “wick” sweat away from the body — fabrics that do this effectively include merino wool and polypropylene.
Making sure that clothing is compatible with any PPE.
Making sure that the outer layer is wind resistant and waterproof with ventilation to prevent overheating.
Having extra clothes to hand. For example, having a spare pair of dry gloves to put on after a break can make getting back out into the cold that little bit easier.
The toolbox talk can be used to educate workers on how to stay warm, signs of cold stress and hyperthermia, as well as safe working practices when it is cold. When considering whether it really is that cold, remember to take into consideration the wind chill factor as well as the impact of rain. Wet clothing and skin increases heat loss from the body, and wind can make a cold day feel much worse.
Employees who spend a long time working in cold environments should not work alone; ideally, they should work in pairs or part of a team. It is even better if workers take responsibility for each other’s health. A buddy system can be used, but in many cases, it boils down to employees using their common sense and taking the initiative to prompt co-workers into taking action if they are showing signs of cold stress.
Rest breaks are incredibly important when working outside, and many people will naturally go for a break when they are feeling the cold. Heated welfare facilities should be provided to give people the chance to warm up, have a cup of tea and dry off. Where workers do not have control over their own schedule it might be necessary to introduce more rest breaks into the day.
Food and drink
Drinking cold water when you are already cold may rehydrate you, but it is unlikely to help warm you up. Welfare facilities should be well-stocked with plenty of hot liquids, such as soup or hot chocolate. This will help keep workers warm as well as avoid dehydration, especially if they are doing a manual job. In really cold snaps, or when someone is showing symptoms of hypothermia, caffeine should be avoided as it can hinder the body’s heat-producing mechanisms.
Hot, calorific food is ideal for mealtimes. One study conducted by the US National Institute of Health indicated that 15 minutes in the cold is equivalent to one hour of exercise, and some studies show that shivering burns five times more energy than resting. A calorie and carbohydrate-rich dinner is a good way of refuelling, keeping energy levels high and reducing accidents associated with low energy and concentration levels.