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Jermaine is part of a roadwork crew repairing a sink hole on a provincial highway. At the start of his workday, the temperature on the job site was 1°C. Over the course of the morning, winds have picked up, snow has fallen steadily, and the temperature has dropped to -7°C.
Jermaine is eager to complete the job as quickly as possible so he can go home to relax. He quickens his pace, and for a while feels warmer because of the more intense physical activity. But as he begins to sweat, the warmth turns to dampness, then cold. He feels mentally foggy and his gloved hands are becoming stiff. It takes him a minute to realize that his coworker Sumit is trying to get his atttention. Sumit walks over.
“Hey Jermaine, you ok?”
“Yeah Sumit, I think so. I worked up a bit of a sweat and the cold’s just started to get to me a little.”
“Let’s get you inside the warming station to dry off and take a break. In weather like this, it’s important to work at a pace that keeps you dry.”
In climates like Canada’s, there are a number of industries in which workers may be outside in colder weather. To prevent injuries from working in the cold, there are a number of important factors employers need to consider before work begins.
Understanding the risk factors for cold injuries
Accurately assessing the risk of exposure in cold weather involves more than air temperature – it’s important to also understand what impacts our bodies’ response to cold.
We tend to feel colder as wind speed increases. Wind chill factor is a measurement of the heat loss rate caused by exposure to wind, expressed in Celsius or Fahreinheit. It can be used as a general guideline for deciding clothing requirements and the possible health effects of cold. Humidity (wetness) also has a big impact on the body’s response to cold because water conducts heat away from the body 25 times faster than dry air.
The intensity of physical activity, personal protective clothing, and taking regular breaks in a warm place can balance air temperature, wind chill, and humidity.
Dressing workers for the elements
As a general rule, workers should be provided with or required to wear protective clothing any time they’re working in temperatures of 4°C or lower (different jurisdictions may have their own requirements). Garments should be selected to suit the temperature, weather conditions (e.g., wind speed, rain, ice), and the level and duration of activity so the amount of heat and perspiration generated while working can be regulated. Select the right gloves, hats, socks, footwear, and face and eye protection for specific cold working conditions.
Multiple layers provide better protection than a single, thick layer as workers can open or remove a layer before they get too warm and start sweating. Wearing layers also accommodates different levels of activity and changing temperatures and weather conditions.
Outer layers should be larger than inner ones to allow for airflow and sweat wicking. Otherwise, inner layers will be compressed and their insulation properties reduced. Cotton is not recommended it tends to get damp or wet quickly and loses its insulating properties. Wool and synthetic fibres still retain heat when wet.
Before work begins, train managers, supervisors and workers on safe work practices, re-warming procedures, proper clothing practices, and what to do in case of emergency. Cold injuries can impact mental alertness so have a buddy system in place where workers can look for signs of injury in each other. Show them how to recognize the different symptoms of frostnip, frostbite, chillblain, immersion foot (trenchfoot) and hypothermia. At least one employee trained in emergency response for cold injury should be available at all times.
Employers can reduce the risk of cold injury by choosing equipment with thermal insulating materials and tools that can be operated with gloves. Allow workers time to adjust to the changing weather conditions. Set the expectation that the pace of work should keep workers warm, without causing them to sweat. For continuous work in below-freezing temperatures, schedule regular breaks in a heated area so that workers have a chance to warm up, adjust clothing layers, and conserve body heat and energy.
Make sure a supervisor or manager is regularly monitoring changing weather conditions. In outdoor workplaces with an air temperature below the freezing point, both air temperature and wind speed should be recorded. Consult your jurisdiction for specific guidelines on working in the cold. You can also refer to the Threshold Limit Values for Cold Stress provided by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH).
Inside the warming station, Jermaine has taken off his waterproof outer layer and is drying off near the heat source. The site supervisor, having checked Jermaine over for symptoms of cold injury, commends Sumit for his quick reaction.
Jermaine is feeling more alert. “Thanks for looking out for me, Sumit!”
“We look out for each other, Jermaine. Happy to help.”
Tips and Tools
This holiday season many Canadian communities have seen the easing of public health and travel restrictions. As such, many people are planning to visit friends and family or attend public events for the first time since the pandemic began.
However, COVID-19 continues to spread, and it only takes a single infected person to start a workplace outbreak. Employers can help keep COVID-19 out of the workplace by modeling safe behaviours and communicating information about remaining vigilant, evaluating personal risks, and making safe choices.
Employers can remind workers:
Here are some tips on making safe choices during the holiday season:
Don’t let your guard down! Maintaining a COVID-19 free workplace depends on everyone doing their part.
Ontario construction organizations and unions are invited to apply to participate in the Silica Control Tool pilot program.
Developed by the British Columbia Construction Safety Alliance (BCSSA), the tool helps workplaces develop an appropriate exposure control plan that can mitigate potentially hazardous exposure to respirable crystalline silica dust, based on the work that is being performed, such as sanding drywall or chipping concrete.
By using predictive measurements, the tool can be calibrated to other jurisdictions, and is now being used outside of BC for the first time through this pilot. Program participants will have full access to the tool for one year, and will get an Exposure Control Plan.
The Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) is sponsoring the pilot and access to the tool is provided in partnership with the BCCSA and CCOHS.
Apply now to the pilot program
CCOHS releases new podcasts each month to help you stay current and informed on workplace health, safety, and well-being in Canada.
New Podcast: COVID-19 Vaccines and the Workplace
Vaccines are an important part of a layered approach to workplace safety during COVID-19. We discuss the benefits and challenges.
The podcast runs 4:56 minutes. Listen to the podcast now.
Encore podcast: Don't Rush into Winter Driving
Harsh winter conditions can appear out of nowhere. When they do, many drivers may get caught off-guard. No matter how many winters you've driven through, it's always a good idea to take some time to prepare before heading out into the elements, keeping in mind some safe driving advice.
The podcast runs 3:41 minutes. Listen to the podcast now.
Are you an occupational health and safety student, or know someone who is? CCOHS is accepting applications for their Dick Martin Scholarship award. The competition is open to all students enrolled in an occupational health and safety course or program at an accredited Canadian college or university, leading to an occupational health and safety certificate, diploma, or degree.
Two scholarships worth $3,000 each will be awarded to one university student and one college student pursuing their education in a field related to occupational health and safety. CCOHS will also award $500 to each of the winning students’ academic institutions.
To apply, students need to complete an online application, submit a cover letter outlining their aspirations of obtaining a career in the health and safety industry, and write a 1,000-to-1,200-word essay on one of two topics related to occupational health and safety:
Applications are open until 11:59 p.m. EST, January 31, 2022. Scholarship rules, criteria, and other guidelines are available on the CCOHS website.
Happy Holidays! CCOHS will be closed from 12:00pm EST December 24 - 8:30am EST January 4, to disconnect from work and recharge with loved ones. We're excited to serve you again in the New Year.
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The Health and Safety Report, a free monthly newsletter produced by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), provides information, advice, and resources that help support a safe and healthy work environment and the total well being of workers.
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