Working in cold weather is no joke. Countless jobs require employees to brave the elements, or in some cases, work indoors in a particularly chilly or temperature-controlled environment, e.g. in food production. However, working in cold environments poses unique risks and challenges that need to be managed carefully by employers to ensure employee safety. This guide aims to highlight the occupational hazards associated with cold weather, legal workplace temperature requirements, necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), and how to manage situations when extreme temperatures halt work.

Snow on car

What occupational hazards are related to working in the cold?

Cold temperatures can increase the risk of a variety of health and safety issues, including:

Frostbite

This is an injury caused by the freezing of the skin and underlying tissues. Fingers, toes, and extremities are most commonly affected. Symptoms include numbness, tingling, and pale skin.

Hypothermia

This occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce, causing the body temperature to drop to a dangerously low level. Symptoms include intense shivering, slurred speech, and drowsiness.

Cold stress

Cold air can reduce the body’s ability to recognise the sensation of cold, leading to prolonged exposure without realisation.

Reduced muscle functionality

Cold temperatures can make muscles stiff and reduce dexterity, increasing the risk of accidents.

Cold-induced asthma

Breathing in cold air can trigger asthma symptoms like coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.

Slips and falls

Ice and snow can create slippery conditions, leading to increased fall risks. 

Vehicle accidents

If the job involves driving in icy conditions, heavy rain or snow, this can increase the risk of an accident.

Working in cold environments for long periods has also been associated with a variety of health issues such as arthritis, rheumatism, carpal tunnel syndrome, and even cardiovascular problems like bronchitis or heart disease. Prolonged exposure to the cold can also worsen the symptoms of these illnesses. 

Working in snow

Is there a legal minimum temperature for work?

There are no legally defined minimum or maximum temperatures for working, but HSE does provide guidelines for what minimum temperatures should be in the workplace.  For workplaces like offices, the minimum temperature usually recommended is 16°C. For more physically demanding work, such as warehouse tasks, a minimum of 13°C is recommended.

It’s important to note that these are general guidelines, however, employers do have a responsibility to provide a “reasonable” temperature in the workplace. Extreme temperatures do bring with them specific health and safety issues, and these should be removed or mitigated as much as possible.

It also depends on the nature of the business, as some environments should be expected to be warmer or colder than others. For example, a bakery or kitchen is probably going to be hot, whereas a construction site in winter, a food production facility or cold storage is going to be cold.

What measures can you take to reduce risks associated with working in the cold?

Working in cold temperatures poses numerous challenges, but by implementing a range of proactive measures, employers can substantially mitigate the associated risks. Here are some practical steps to ensure the safety and well-being of employees:

  • Where feasible, install heating systems or use portable heaters to maintain a comfortable temperature in workspaces.
  • Ensure workers have regular breaks in warm areas, allowing them to recover from the cold. Offering access to warm drinks can also help in raising body temperatures and improving morale.
  • Where possible, design or modify work processes to minimise prolonged exposure to cold areas or products. This could mean restructuring tasks or changing the layout of a workspace.
  • Identify areas with cold draughts and block or redirect them while ensuring adequate ventilation where needed. This can include sealing gaps, using windbreaks, or improving insulation.
Snow Shoes
  • Insulate flooring and provide special footwear. Cold can seep in from ground surfaces, especially in open spaces or on concrete floors. Using insulating floor coverings can help prevent this. Additionally, in extremely cold conditions, providing special footwear can protect workers from cold-related foot injuries.
  • Ensure that employees have access to and use adequate protective clothing designed specifically for cold environments. This includes items like insulated jackets, gloves, and headgear.
  • If your workplace has a specific dress code, consider relaxing it during cold spells. This allows staff to wear warmer, more suitable clothing. However, it’s crucial that any adjustments still adhere to necessary PPE guidelines.
  • Implement systems like flexible working hours or job rotation. This ensures that no single employee is exposed to the cold for extended periods. For instance, workers can rotate between indoor and outdoor tasks.
  • If certain jobs do not require immediate attention and can be completed in more favourable conditions, consider postponing them. This might apply to tasks that involve prolonged exposure to the cold or handling of cold products.

By integrating these measures into your workplace practices, you can create a safer, more productive environment for everyone. Remember, it’s not just about meeting regulations; it’s about ensuring the health and well-being of your most valuable asset – your employees.

How to reduce slip, trip and fall risks in cold temperatures

Icy, wet, or leaf-laden surfaces can transform seemingly benign areas into potential hazards. Thankfully, by taking proactive measures, employers and property owners can minimise these risks. Here’s how:

  • Make sure all areas are well-lit, especially at entrances and in outdoor spaces. Adequate lighting not only makes icy patches or wet areas more visible but also gives pedestrians greater confidence when moving through these zones.
  • Autumn and winter bring not just colder temperatures but often a blanket of fallen leaves. Wet or decaying leaves can make pathways slippery, and piles of leaves can obscure tripping hazards. It’s vital to clear leaves at regular intervals to maintain clear, safe walkways.
  • The choice of paving material can play a significant role in preventing accidents. Opt for slip-resistant paving on pathways and other high-traffic outdoor areas. Such materials offer better traction, reducing the risk of slips, especially when wet or frosty.
Snow on Ramp
  • The entrance of a building can quickly become a danger zone, especially when people track in snow, ice, or water. Installing canopies over entrances can reduce the amount of precipitation that reaches the ground, minimising icy build-up. Inside, using absorbent mats can help soak up melted snow and water, and non-slip flooring can provide additional safety.
  • Staying updated with weather forecasts allows you to anticipate and prepare for adverse conditions. For instance, if a freeze is predicted following rain, you know the conditions are ripe for icy patches to form.
  • Using grit or salt is a good preventative measure to combat icy surfaces. By scattering grit on pathways and in parking areas, you can substantially improve traction and reduce slip risks. In situations where certain areas are deemed too risky — perhaps due to steep slopes, high winds, or other factors — it may be wise to cordon them off entirely until conditions improve.

We also offer a training course for slip, trip and fall hazards.

Working In snow

What PPE is required for working in cold temperatures?

For those working outdoors in cold weather, or working indoors in cold environments, suitable PPE should be provided to reduce the risk of frostbite, hypothermia, and other health and safety issues. Here are some suggestions for PPE that can help mitigate these problems:

Hats and headgear like beanies and balaclavas can be used in cold weather to keep workers warm. Always ensure that they do not interfere with any other required PPE such as hard hats, goggles or masks.

Thermal layers and fleece jackets can be ideal for those working in the cold – provide jackets with zips rather than buttons as they keep the heat in better. A waterproof or water-resistant outer layer could be suitable for certain working environments. Workers should always be able to change out of wet clothes and into dry ones to reduce the risk of frostbite or hypothermia.

Thermal gloves should be well-fitted to ensure that workers have the manual dexterity to perform tasks – ill-fitting or loose gloves can lead to accidents. If workers have their hands and arms in a freezer, provide gloves with long sleeves.

Treat goggles and safety glasses with an anti-fog spray to avoid reduced visibility due to condensation.

Safety boots should be waterproof or water-resistant, depending on the work environment, and have non-slip soles. If steel-toed boots are required for the job, workers should wear extra socks, as the metal in the boots can act as a cold sink, leading to an increased risk of frostbite in the toes.

Heavy Snow

What to do if extreme temperatures prevent people from working

Snowstorms, icy conditions, and poor visibility are among the most dangerous weather-related challenges faced by workers. Here’s what employers and employees should do when confronted with such conditions.

Before making any decisions, it’s crucial to assess the severity of the weather conditions. Monitoring updated weather reports can provide insights into the expected duration and intensity of the adverse conditions. Some tasks may not be time-sensitive and can be rescheduled for safer conditions. Prioritise essential tasks and consider postponing or rescheduling others.

The safety of employees should always come first. If conditions are deemed too hazardous, it’s better to halt operations temporarily rather than risk accidents or health issues. Have a clear line of communication with all team members. Inform them of any changes in work schedules, delays, or cancellations. Ensure that employees know how and where to report concerns related to weather conditions. If workers are already on-site and conditions deteriorate rapidly, ensure there are designated shelters or safe areas where they can seek refuge from the elements.

Poor visibility from snow

Poor visibility can lead to accidents, particularly in areas with moving vehicles or machinery. If visibility is severely compromised, consider stopping operations until conditions improve. If areas become too icy and pose a risk for slips and falls, they should be cordoned off until they can be treated with grit or salt. If necessary, consider investing in professional snow and ice removal services. If operations involve the use of vehicles, ensure they are equipped to handle icy roads or reduced visibility. This can include having snow chains, fog lights, and ensuring regular maintenance checks during the winter season.

Make sure all employees are trained on the hazards associated with extreme cold, including recognising the signs of frostbite and hypothermia. They should know the protocols in place and how to respond to emergencies. If possible, offer flexible work arrangements such as remote work or altered work hours. This allows employees to stay productive without risking their safety. Equip work sites with emergency kits that include essentials like first aid supplies, blankets, torches, extra batteries, non-perishable food, and water. This can be a lifeline if workers get stranded due to sudden extreme weather changes.

Cold conditions can present a lot of problems in the workplace, but with the correct use of PPE, modified work processes, and proper risk assessments, many of them can be mitigated. Here at Optimum Safety, we can conduct a comprehensive risk assessment of your work environment and make recommendations to keep your workforce safe. Get in touch with us today!

Published On: 15th December 2023 / Categories: Health and Safety / Tags: , , /

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