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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:

 

Hypothermia

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.

 

Frostbite

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.

 

Contact us for advice on choosing winter workwear 

What simple measures can be applied to protect workers?

The HSE provides guidance on simple administration controls you can put in place:
  • 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?

As an employer, you need to dedicate some time to researching the different designs and materials available, in order to select the best garments for your employees and help them maintain thermal comfort. You’ll need to consider the type of activity the individual workers will be performing and choose appropriate clothing for each role, as well as for the cold. In some cases, you may need to allow employees to adapt the staff uniform policy if strictly adhering to its rules will present risks.
 

The 3-layer principle

Dressing according to the 3-layer principle is a smart and effective way to keep dry and stay warm. This is a garment layering system consisting of a base layer, mid layer and outer layer, which when combined correctly give an excellent level of comfort, warmth, breathability, water resistance and wind resistance.

 

Jackets

Consider waterproof and breathable jackets that are compliant with EN343 - Waterproof & Breathable Protective Clothing. This standard outlines a minimum level of protection against wet weather, with the whole garment construction taken into consideration in addition to the fabrics. Any products tested to EN343 will be given performance ratings for water penetration and breathability, with 1 being the lowest rating and 3 the highest. If your team are working outdoors during the winter months it’s best to opt for an EN343 Class 3 jacket so they have the best level of protection.
 
Consider what kind of task the worker will be carrying out, for example, it may be best to choose lighter weight jackets that won’t restrict movement and are easy to put on and take off.  Also consider whether a hood on the jacket will interfere with safety headgear or compromise hearing protection. Ideally, these garments should have a means of varying insulation and air flow, such as multiple layers or thermal linings that can be added or taken off to suit the conditions.
 

Boots

Remember when choosing suitable boots for outdoor work, that they may need to be larger to allow for thicker thermal socks. Comfort is a big factor; if this isn’t considered before you make a purchase you may find that the safety footwear causes workers harm, especially if they are too small, too large or inappropriate for the particular task.
 
As with any type of work, safety footwear must be chosen in response to the hazards present in the environment, and in outdoor winter work there are a number of increased risks. It’s recommended that the upper is made of waterproof material with a thermal lining, so the feet are kept warm while also being able to breathe. Choose footwear with enhanced slip resistance, high flexibility and durability, so it can stand up to the common challenges workers will face in difficult weather conditions.
 
Refer to the ratings as part of EN ISO 20345, which will tell you what properties the shoes have. For example, safety boots with S3 HRO WR and SRC ratings have a penetration resistant midsole and cleated outsole (S3), heat resistant outsole (HRO), are water resistant (WR) and have the highest slip resistance rating (SRC).
 

Gloves

Gloves that have been tested to EN511:2006 have been specifically designed to protect hands against the cold. All testing is performed on the material combination used. The gloves’ insulation properties may be affected by the air temperature, humidity, wind speed, time of exposure, activity level, and the health of the user.
 
This standard applies to any gloves that protect the hands against convective and contact cold down to -50°C, and is expressed with a pictogram followed by 3 performance levels. These are Protection against Convective Cold (performance level 0-4), Protection against Contact Cold (performance level 0-4) and Protection against Water Penetration (performance level 0 or 1: 0 indicates water penetration after 30 mins; 1 indicates no water penetration after 30 mins).
 
Some workers may have already been issued hand protection to guard against specific hazards in their environment. However, these may not have been designed for use in cold and wet weather and could cause discomfort in the coming months. Look for thermal gloves that also offer water-resistance, as well as the protection required for the worker’s tasks.
 
Protective gloves should be provided to and worn by employees whenever the temperature drops to 4°C for anything considered ‘light work’.
 

Hats

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.

 

For protection in the colder months, explore out Outdoor Clothing range





Author

Glen Smith

Having worked at WISE Worksafe for over 15 years, Glen Smith our Marketing Manager has a wealth of experience in corporate branding and company clothing. He has a passion for making brands stand out from the crowd, and coming up with innovative solutions to support our clients in this process.