By Chris Ross
With winter in full swing, it’s a good time to review some of the risks and control measures to protect your workers from the challenges of winter work. Here are some reminders about some of the most common winter problems.
Slips, trips and falls are obviously one of the biggest winter hazards. Worksites, parking lots, ladders and scaffolding, storage areas and elevated surfaces all pose risks for falls. Establishing a good system for snow removal and sanding is the first line of defense. This is especially challenging during periods of freeze and thaw, where snow left behind can turn to ice and become difficult to remove. It’s best to remove snow immediately, if possible. This is critical for elevated work areas such as ladders, scaffolding, roof parapets and other surfaces where a fall is compounded by height.
Many companies issue footwear traction devices by brands such as Stabilicers, Yaktraxs, IceTrekkers and others to workers in icy conditions. These are proven to help reduce winter slips and falls. Teaching everyone to “walk like a penguin” in slippery areas, especially in parking lots, is a good reminder. The last line of defense is to get people to build a strong habit of testing their footing.
Cold weather can also bring about environmental concerns such as hypothermia and frostbite. Encouraging workers to wear layered clothing, providing warm break areas and protection from the wind, and encouraging employees to use the buddy system of watching out for each other can all help limit the effects of cold exposure.
It is worth noting that hypothermia is actually more prevalent during warmer, wetter weather, when we tend to be a bit more complacent. Keeping dry is the key — wearing rain protection or dressing in layers to avoid sweating and over-exertion during strenuous activities such as snow shoveling can reduce the risk.
Another common problem is dehydration. It can be hard to keep hydrated enough during winter work. Signs and symptoms of dehydration include: thirst; a dry or sticky mouth; infrequent urination; dark yellow urine; dry, cool skin; headaches; and muscle cramps. Ensure everyone has access to plenty of water, and remind everyone to drink water during breaks.
Hazards may also include falling snow or ice on elevated surfaces or even tools being dropped. Establishing “safety clearance” zones or physical protection may be required in these situations.
Both equipment and people need to be warmed up prior to working in extreme cold weather. Bringing equipment to proper operating temperature is essential to avoid damage. Make sure the equipment is properly rated for its intended use. For example, some nail guns have a limited temperature operating range. Other pieces of equipment that use hydraulics may need significant warm-up time before they can be used. Using plug-in or blanket heaters can be helpful, but be mindful of potential fire hazards.
Indoor air quality issues can present serious hazards, as covered in a two-part series published in the Winter 2017 and Spring 2017 issues of The Alaska Contractor. Tenting during construction, the use of forced air heaters, and working in enclosed buildings or areas can all contribute to substandard air quality, high levels of carbon monoxide and reduced oxygen levels. Establishing proper ventilation is the best line of defense, along with an effective air-monitoring program.
Shorter daylight hours also bring about risks associated with decreased visibility. That can cause problems in traffic areas and poorly lit work areas and can affect morale and mood. It is essential to ensure that there is adequate lighting. Provide highvisibility vests or outerwear to protect workers in traffic zones where there are cars, trucks, cranes, forklifts or other moving equipment. Test audible alarms on equipment.
Employees who travel in vehicles or work at construction sites should also have access to emergency kits. Those kits should be designed for the hazards present. For instance, all vehicles should have a first-aid kit, blanket, flares/triangles, flashlight, batteries, snacks, water, gloves, boots, tire chains or traction devices, ice scraper/snowbrush and jumper cables. Construction sites, especially in remote locations, should be
prepared to shelter workers in place for up to several days in the event of poor weather conditions. That means stocking extra blankets, food and water — in addition to the basic emergency kit already in place.
Winter can be a delightful or dangerous time in Alaska. Being prepared is the key, especially mental preparation. Constant communication about the hazards is important to keep everyone’s mind on task. Discussing states such as fatigue, rushing, frustration and complacency should be part of every pre-shift meeting. Consider using the buddy system for bad weather conditions or high-risk tasks. Helping workers to identify and mitigate risks requires open minds, clear feedback and following up on issues identified.
The Engagement Effect, a division of Ross Performance Group, LLC, offers solutions in organizational results, safety and health, leadership, talent management and culture change. Learn more about us at www.theengagementeffect.com or email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.