As temperatures plunge, keeping workers safe from falling air temperatures is a priority for many businesses, even in regions that are not accustomed to frigid winter weather. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), exposure to extreme cold, near freezing temperatures, wet conditions, and wind chill are all considered risk factors for cold stress.
Cold stress occurs when a person’s skin temperature decreases, and eventually the internal body temperature along with it. When the body is unable to warm itself, serious cold-related illnesses and injuries may occur, along with the potential for permanent tissue damage and even death. The most common types of cold stress include hypothermia, frostbite, and trench foot.
Colder temperatures can affect anyone who is exposed to the elements for extended periods, including those who work in facility management, drivers and delivery personnel, snow cleanup, construction, landscape services and employees who commute to work. Even workers in warmer climates (above freezing) can be exposed to the effects of cold stress from increased and sustained wind speeds, which can cause heat to leave the body more rapidly (wind chill effect). Wetness or dampness caused by precipitation and body sweat can also facilitate heat loss from the body.
Dressing properly, including selecting garments constructed with protective fabrics if applicable, is one of the best ways for businesses to help prevent cold stress from affecting their workers. “Cotton, for example, is not always the best choice for outdoor workers since it can lose its warming value when it becomes wet from either inclement weather or perspiration. Instead, outdoor workers are often better protected when wearing other fabric options, such as those with built-in technology to wick away moisture, helping keep wearers warm and dry all day long,” says Adam Soreff, director of marketing and communications at UniFirst Corporation (NYSE: UNF), a North American leader in providing customized work uniform programs, corporate attire, and facility service products.
The following are 10 tips to consider, many of which are endorsed by OSHA, to help protect yourself or others from cold stress:
1. Wear at least three layers of loose-fitting clothing, designed with the appropriate types of fabrics, as proper layering provides improved insulation from the elements.
2. Select garments close to the body that are made with “breathable” fabrics, such as moisture-wicking synthetics, to help workers stay dry and comfortable.
3. Choose outer garments that are insulated but do not have much added bulk that could interfere with worker mobility.
4. Consider outerwear that is water repellent to aid worker protection from rain, sleet, or snow.
5. Select outer garments that also have built-in ventilation to help prevent excessive sweating and keep workers dry.
6. Wear a hat or hood to help keep the entire body warm; hats reduce the amount of body heat that escapes.
7. Use a knit mask to cover and help protect the face and mouth. Wraparound eye protection can also help preserve body heat and prevent eyes from
drying out due to cold.
8. Use insulated gloves to protect the hands.
9. Wear double-layer thermal socks and insulated, waterproof footwear.
10. Ensure workers take regular breaks and, when possible, warm up indoors with hot beverages (no alcohol) to increase body temperature.
While working outdoors in the winter can be challenging, following these basic tips and participating in a managed uniform program can help businesses protect outdoor workers from the effects of cold stress, allowing them to consistently get the job done safely.