The MedRisk Blog
Depending on your location and climate, winter can take a toll on the health and safety of your workforce. In frosty Michigan, for instance, slips and falls represent one-third of all workers’ compensation claims during winter months. Additionally, studies have shown outdoor work in colder temperatures to increase the incidents of low back and neck pain.
Although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not have standards that cover work in cold environments specifically, it is the responsibility of employers to provide a safe working environment for all employees, free of recognized hazards that are likely to cause serious physical harm. Here are some tips for carrying out this responsibility – and supporting your employees’ well-being – when winter arrives.
The best way to prevent cold-related illness and injury is to reduce the amount of time workers spend outside. You can do this by arranging for routine outdoor tasks, such as maintenance and repair jobs, to be handled in warmer months. During winter, minimize exposure to the cold by scheduling outdoor work for the warmest part of the day and limiting the amount of time spent outdoors on extremely cold days. If a long, demanding job can’t be moved to a warmer day, consider adding relief workers to the rotation for shorter shifts. Supply blast heaters where needed, and shield work areas from drafts or wind to reduce wind chill. Be sure to encourage workers to take breaks indoors and to consume warm beverages throughout the day.
Ice and snow buildup poses serious risk of slips and falls if not tended to properly. Have a maintenance plan in place to apply ice melt or salt to your parking lots, walkways, loading/shipping docks and steps. Lay down mats near entrances to prevent tracked ice, snow and mud and to prevent slippery conditions. If your workforce includes employees who routinely work outside, consider adding a mud room or entry room for workers to remove and store boots and outerwear to minimize tracking into other work areas.
When winter conditions come on suddenly, employee communications can be critical, even life-saving. Have a system in place for monitoring weather conditions and staying attuned to public announcements related to severe weather. If operations must be suspended, be sure your communication methods allow you to reach all workers, including those in remote areas.
Routine tools and equipment may need to be rethought when being used in colder temperatures. It’s important to bear in mind that wearing bulkier clothing may restrict workers’ movement. Identify potential hazards so you can train your staff on appropriate safety measures. Have safeguards in place on machinery to prevent clothing from catching on handles, switches or levers.
Environmental cold can affect exposed workers and put them at risk of cold stress, which occurs when the body can no longer maintain a normal temperature. And cold stress can lead to cold-related illness or injury, permanent tissue damage, or death. Workers with hypertension, hypothyroidism, and diabetes are particularly vulnerable, and employees who have been away from work or are new to working in cold temperatures may require more frequent breaks and time to build up a tolerance to colder temperatures. Direct employees to dress appropriately, by layering loose fitting clothing. Train your workers to recognize the signs of cold stress and how to help those who are affected. Finally, remind workers of the importance of stretching and physical activity in cold temperatures, which can prevent muscle tension and mitigate the risk of musculoskeletal injury.
Whether your organization’s primary work environment is indoors or outdoors, in cubicles or on a factory floor, winter requires planning and vigilance. Protecting your workforce and minimizing illness and injury by taking the steps outlined above will help keep operations smoothly – and safely – all winter long.
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