We all wistfully think of long, warmer summers and milder winters.
And while we’ve definitely been enjoying some hot summers in the UK recently, it looks like the idea of warmer winters continues to be just a dream.
According to recent research published in the Nature Geoscience journal, we need to gear up for severe winters in the decades to come. This is due to climate change, which is melting Arctic ice at a rapid rate, causing freezing air to head south and create extreme winter weather fronts across the UK.
This might be fantastic news for keen tobogganers, but for those who have to work outdoors it makes for more sober reading.
Now, more than ever, protection from the cold is a must.
Read on to find out how you can manage the risks for working in winter - keeping yourself and your colleagues warm, happy and safe.
“People working in uncomfortably hot or cold environments are more likely to behave unsafely because their ability to make decisions and/or perform manual tasks deteriorates.” - The Health and Safety Executive
Unfortunately for outdoor workers, there’s no option to turn up the heating when winter hits.
And for many industries, work has to continue whatever the weather. We’re talking cold temperatures, rain, sleet, wind and snow.
Unfortunately, that means a lot of hazards and dangers to contend with:
- Slips, trips and falls
- Poor visibility
- Snow removal injuries
- Trench foot
- And, surprisingly, dehydration!
In the next few sections we’re going to cover each of the above in detail, and some top tips on how to beat the cold, so you can keep safe no matter what you’re up against.
Beating The Cold
However, if a job takes longer than intended, or work is interrupted, or there’s sudden rain, it won’t take long to feel the consequences.
In such cases, you can suffer from hypothermia, which develops when your body can’t maintain its core temperature. To combat this, the body attempts to reduce heat loss by shutting down blood flow to the skin, arms and legs, and increase internal heat production by shivering.
Severe cases of hypothermia can be fatal, but even mild hypothermia will have a negative impact on your ability to think clearly or move well. This, of course, greatly increases the risk of accidents.
Symptoms of hypothermia include shivering or shaking, lack of coordination, drowsiness or confusion and slurred speech.
Emergency services should be called in cases of hypothermia. However, there are a few first aid tips to follow until assistance arrive.
- Get the person indoors.
- Remove any wet clothing and dry the person off if necessary.
- Warm the person’s torso first, rather than the hands or feet as this can cause shock.
- Warm the person by wrapping them in blankets or putting dry clothing on them.
- Don’t immerse the person in warm water as rapid warming can cause heart arrhythmia.
- Wrap any hot water bottles or chemical hot packs in cloth - don’t apply them directly to the skin.
However, we can all agree it’s best to try and avoid hypothermia altogether!
To do this, you should always wear layers of clothing that can be removed or added as temperatures change. Personal Protective Equipment, such as waterproof boots, gloves and outer layers are also a must in winter months. You can read more about layering here!
Frostbite (the freezing of skin and underlying tissue) is also a risk and can happen at any level of cold temperature. However, the colder it is the quicker frostbite will set in.
Symptoms of frostbite commonly affect the hands and feet and include numbness, reddened skin with grey or white patches, areas becoming firm to touch and, in severe cases, blisters or swelling.
Like hypothermia, emergency medical care should be sought as soon as possible in cases of frostbite. However, first aid tips include:
- Keeping the affected body part elevated to reduce swelling.
- Move the person to a warm area to prevent further heat loss.
- Remove all wet clothing and apply a dry, sterile bandage to the affected area or place cotton between any involved fingers or toes.
As with hypothermia, the best way to avoid frostbite is to layer up and stay dry!
Slips and Trips
Icy walkways, parking lots and working surfaces can be a nightmare in winter months.
It’s not just your pride that’s hurt when you fall. Head wounds, broken bones and injured backs are all possible consequences.
As such, you should make an active effort to stop ice build-up on any surfaces which might be walked or worked on. Here are some top tips:
- Remove water, snow or ice on floor and walkways immediately.
- Mark hazardous areas with temporary signs, barricades or cones.
- Avoid carrying heavy loads that might compromise their balance.
- Wear suitable footwear that has heavy treads for better traction and grip.
- If you must walk on icy patches, remember to walk slowly with small steps, keeping your feet flat on the ground and arms at your side
- Exit the ice as soon as you can. If you’re exiting a vehicle, get out by placing both feet on the group. Trying to get out just one foot at a time could lead to a slip and fall.
Dark, wet and windy weather coupled with reduced daylight hours means poor visibility and the increased chance of being hit by moving vehicles or equipment.
Fortunately, visibility can be drastically improved with the use of high-visibility clothing (the clue’s in the name).
High visibility garments are designed to increase your visibility during daylight, low-light and night-time environments. The best products combine fluorescent material with reflective bands or strips as the two materials react differently to sunlight and artificial light respectively Full body high-visibility clothing is recommend in winter months so drivers of approaching vehicles can see the wearer more easily.
Remember to keep your eyes peeled for the CE kite mark and certification to BS EN 471 and/or EN ISO 20471 when purchasing high-visibility gear.
Additionally, suitable signs and traffic management procedures are highly recommended in the dark winter months to prevent accidents.
Snow Removal Injuries
As you can tell by now, winter presents a number of challenges. Unfortunately, even the act of removing snow is another common cause of injuries during cold weather. This is due to overexertion which leads to bad backs or even heart attacks.
When shoveling snow, here are the precautions to take:
- Stretch beforehand.
- Try to use a small, lightweight shovel with a curved handle designed to take the strain off the back.
- Start slowly and pace yourself. Don’t try to lift too much at once and push the snow instead of lifting where possible.
- Stand with your feet slightly apart and bend your knees when lifting.
This is a condition when an injury to the feet is sustained due to long exposure to wet and cold conditions.
Symptoms include reddened skin, numbness, swelling, leg cramps, tingling pain, blisters, sub-dermal bleeding and gangrene.
If you or a colleague show signs of trench foot, you should seek medical help. These quick first aid actions should also help:
- Remove any wet footwear and socks.
- Dry the feet and avoid walking as much as possible.
- Avoid water and the cold for as long as you need to until the symptoms are gone.
To keep trench foot at bay, it’s vital your feet stay dry. This means PPE equipment such as waterproof footwear that’s high enough to prevent entry of water, snow or ice.
Yes, you read that right! While dehydration isn’t the first thing that pops into people’s heads when they hear the word ‘winter’, it’s actually a major problem.
During cold weather, the body’s thirst sensation is reduced by around 40% and the brain doesn’t signal the kidneys to retain water.
This is a quick recipe for dehydration, which is particularly concerning for workers in dangerous environments (e.g. using heavy machinery, power tools or working at height).
This is because someone with 3% dehydration has a delayed reaction time equivalent to a blood alcohol content of 0.08 (that’s the cap of the drink drive limit)!
Symptoms of dehydration include the lips and mouth feeling dry, heart rate and breathing increasing, feeling fatigued, developing a headache, feeling irritated or depressed.
Fortunately, the solution is very simple. Drink lots of water!
You wouldn’t think the sun would be a big problem during winter, but unfortunately it has a tendency to glare off snow. This can damage your eyes, so eye protection such as sunglasses are highly recommended during the winter months.
Who Can Help?
Swift360 has long-standing experience in helping keep outdoor workers warm and safe in the cold winter months. To find out about the Personal Protective Equipment we provide, check out our core range here.