During Britain’s heatwave last summer we covered how to protect outdoor workers in hot weather conditions, but what about cold conditions? With temperatures dropping as we head into the new year, now’s the time to determine whether you have the appropriate processes, equipment and clothing in place to deal with the risks. In the UK there is no legal maximum or minimum outdoor working temperature, so employers need to rely on thorough thermal risk assessments.
What are the risks?
The effects of the unpredictable UK weather can potentially have a serious impact on the health of your employees if the risks are not identified and minimised.
Slips and trips increase during the autumn and winter months, as visibility is reduced and surfaces become slippery. Paths are more likely to be covered with leaves, moss, rain, ice and snow, which all affect grip when walking.
The two most common health conditions that arise as a result of working for long periods of time in cold weather are:
This develops when the body can no longer maintain its temperature, leading to the body first trying to reduce heat loss by shutting down blood flow to the skin, arms and legs, and then trying to increase internal heat production by shivering. Even mild cases of hypothermia can cause poor coordination, irrational or confused behaviour and mental impairment, all of which will significantly impact a worker’s ability to perform their tasks to a safe and adequate standard.
This is caused by prolonged exposure to very cold weather as well as extremely cold objects, such as metal tools. Frostbite commonly affects the face, ears, fingers and toes.
The effects of cold weather may be seen immediately in some cases, or may occur over a long period of time. Cold can also increase the risk of other health problems such as hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS) and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).
Even if these more serious health risks are not present, workers may take dangerous shortcuts to get out of the cold, or their ability to concentrate may diminish, increasing the risk of accidents occurring and mistakes being made.
What is thermal comfort and why is it important?
To achieve thermal comfort at work a range of environmental, work-related and personal factors have to be taken into account. Personal factors include body activity, amount and type of clothing, and duration of exposure. Environmental factors include ambient temperature and radiant heat, whether the work is outside, sunlight, wind velocity and the presence of rain or snow.
By managing the thermal comfort of workers you can improve health and safety, as well as boost morale and productivity. Workers may attempt to adapt to cope with their thermal environment, including adding clothing if they are too cold. This, however, can lead to safety issues, especially if it means that hi-vis clothing is being covered up by another layer of clothing.
Considering temperature alone may not always be enough, because there is also a danger of ‘wind chill’. This is responsible for as much as 80% of total body heat loss and is often referred to as the ‘feels like’ temperature. It’s important to provide outdoor clothing that can also protect against the wind as well as the cold.
What simple measures can be applied to protect workers?
- Make sure the workwear and PPE you’ve supplied is appropriate for the conditions - thoroughly research outdoor and protective clothing rather than opting for the cheapest option
- Provide mobile facilities for warming up where possible
- Encourage drinking warm fluids such as soup and hot drinks
- Introduce more frequent rest breaks so workers have time to warm up or change if their clothing is wet
- Consider delaying the work; can it be delayed until warmer times of the year?
- Educate workers on recognising the early symptoms of cold stress
What workwear garments should workers be provided with?
The 3-layer principle
It’s a common belief that much of the heat we lose in our bodies is through the head, so this is a key area to protect when working outdoors. Wearing a thermal hat will help retain heat but, as with hoods, it’s important to ensure that these do not interfere with PPE and safety headgear. If workers are required to wear a safety helmet, it’s best to go for a thermal hardhat liner, rather than wearing other headwear that could impact the effectiveness of the helmet.