As the seasons begin to change, winter weather creates hazardous worksite conditions. Winter brings snow, ice, wind chills, and persistent temperatures below freezing. Workers, as well as supervisors and employers, need to take winter safety into consideration throughout everyday worksite duties. Injuries that are commonplace at the worksite year-round become more likely during the winter months. These tips are intended to provide employers and workers with the tools to implement safety precautions throughout the cold months.

There are no OSHA specific standards concerning work in cold environment. However, under the OSH Act, employers have a duty and obligation to protect workers from hazards. According to OSHA, that includes cold stress hazards that may cause or be likely to cause death or serious physical harm on the worksite. Cold stress is defined as a drop in skin temperature due to persistent cold temperatures that results in a decrease in internal body temperatures. Among the most common types of cold stress are trench foot (exposure of foot to prolonged cold/wet conditions), frostbite (damage from the freezing of skin and tissue), and hypothermia (body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit).

According to the OSHA website on winter safety, OSHA recommends that employers and employees take precautions by following these tips to prevent cold stress:

  • Employers should train workers on:
    • How to recognize the environmental and workplace conditions that can lead to cold stress
    • The symptoms of cold stress, how to prevent cold stress, and what to do to help those who are affected
    • How to select proper clothing for cold, wet, and windy conditions
  • Employers should:
    • Monitor worker’s physical condition
    • Schedule frequent short breaks in warm dry areas, to allow the body to warm up
    • Schedule work during the warmest part of the day
    • Use the buddy system (work in pairs)
    • Provide warm, sweet beverages, and avoid drinks with alcohol
    • Provide engineering controls such as radiant heaters

Where a worksite involves snow removal tasks, employers must evaluate how to eliminate hazards. Employers should brief workers during a worksite meeting about the potential for unexpected hazards due to weather conditions. They should take extra caution by avoiding snow removal methods that are hazardous, such as manually removing snow from a roof, and ensuring the use of proper hazard reducing methods, such as using appropriate lift equipment and personal protective equipment.

OSHA also recommends extra care be taken while driving during the winter months. According to OSHA’s safe winter driving publication, motorists should remember the three P’s of safe winter driving:

  1. Prepare for the trip
  2. Protect yourself
  3. Prevent crashes on the road

OSHA recommends preparedness include having appropriate safety items on hand throughout the winter months, including: “flashlight, jumper cables, abrasive material (sand, kitty litter, even floor mats), shovel, snow brush and ice scraper, warning devices (like flares) and blankets. For long trips, add food and water, medication and cell phone.” Notably, drivers should take extra precautions to identify hazards in the road, including pedestrians, as stopping distances are decreased.

Although these tips are important considerations, they are not an exhaustive list. Review cold weather practices with workers on the worksite and identify any hazards that may be unique to each individual project. Always remember, document any information that you share with your employees – if there is no record, then as far as OSHA is concerned, it never happened.