Last year, temperatures throughout the United States dropped to record lows; and weather stations were abuzz with tips on preparing for the “polar vortex,” which brought with it arctic blasts and heavy snowfall. Meteorologists are predicting another harsh, cold winter and have provided a list of instructions for surviving the long winter months. However, meteorologists are not alone in dispensing guidance and preparation tips in anticipation of extremely cold weather. With the onset of winter, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is reminding employers and workers to take necessary precautions to prevent and treat cold-induced injuries and illnesses.
Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) employers have a duty to provide their employees with a work environment free of recognized hazards likely to cause serious physical harm or death. OSHA has recognized several winter weather related hazards that are likely to cause serious injury or death —such as “cold stress” illnesses like hypothermia and frostbite and cold-induced injuries that may occur when employees over exert themselves while working in cold temperatures. Employees participating in outdoor work, such as construction, commercial fishing, and agriculture, are at heightened risk for severe winter weather injuries and illnesses. Employers must properly prepare the work environment and their employees to protect and prevent cold-related hazards.
In preparation for the onset of cold weather, OSHA suggests that employers do the following:
1. Train Employees
OSHA believes that educating employees on recognizing winter related hazards is essential for preventing cold-induced injuries and illnesses. At a minimum, cold weather training should include educating employees on “cold stress.” Common cold stress injuries include hypothermia, frostbite and trench foot, all of which occur when the skin and internal body temperature drops too low—cold stress can cause tissue damage and possibly death. OSHA’s Cold Stress Guide provides detailed information for employers on when cold stress occurs, what constitutes cold stress and the risk factors that make cold stress more likely. Employers should train employees to recognize the signs of cold stress, which include uncontrollable shivering, slurred speech, fatigue, impaired motor skills and confused behavior. To assist employers in training their employees about the risks of cold stress, OSHA has developed a Cold Stress Card, a pocket-sized reference guide containing recommendations on preventing and treating cold stress injuries and illnesses. Employers or employees can obtain free copies of the laminated fold-up Cold Stress Card in English or Spanish by calling 1-800-321-OSHA.
2. Provide Engineering Controls and Protective Gear
While employers cannot control the weather, they can provide additional tools for employees to cope with hazardously cold temperatures. Engineering controls, such as radiant heaters, can be an effective means of reducing the risk of cold stress. Employers should equip their outdoor worksites with engineering controls to combat the cold temperatures and to provide a heat source for outdoor workers. Additionally, although not typically required by the OSH Act, OSHA encourages employers to provide employees with the necessary protective gear for outdoor winter work, such as gloves, hats and heavy coats. If employers choose not to provide winter protective wear, they should encourage their employees to dress warmly and provide a written list of the types of clothing that may prevent exposure to the cold, wet or windy conditions, which are synonymous with the winter months.
3. Implement Safe Work Practices
In addition to educating employees on the dangers of winter weather, employers should implement safe workplace practices to fend off cold weather injuries and illnesses. Employers should regularly check the weather forecast, including the wind-chill factor, and when possible, schedule outdoor work for the warmest part of the day. Employers should also require employees to take additional short rest periods to avoid exhaustion or fatigue. The rest periods should be in warm areas or indoors when possible, to provide employees with protection from the cold weather. Lastly, OSHA encourages employers to make warm beverages available, such as coffee and tea, in the break rooms or on the job sites for employees to increase their body temperature after performing work in cold conditions.
By recognizing the workplace and environmental conditions that present high risks of cold-related hazards and taking the necessary precautions to educate employees about these risks, employers can minimize the effects of cold weather injuries and illnesses in the workplace.
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