Q: The extreme cold weather in recent weeks was tough for members of our team who were not used to the conditions. What warning signs should they watch for in themselves and one another while in the cold? What can I do to help provide a safe workplace?
A: The last few weeks have been bitterly cold in many parts of the country, and we’re not out of winter yet. Much of the Midwest has been blanketed in places with snow reaching depths of 12-18 inches. Temperatures have dipped below zero in numerous locations and windchill has reached -20 degrees. Even places such as Texas, which rarely see temperatures this low, have been affected. Extreme cold temperatures bring an increased risk of exposure, slips, trips, falls, and dangerous travel.
Few people realize you become dehydrated when your body is exposed to cold weather. The body still perspires but it evaporates more quickly in cold, dry air. Add wind and it happens even faster. Workers also do not feel as thirsty in the cold. This causes dehydration to happen quickly.
Hypothermia is a very serious condition in which the body’s core temperature is losing heat faster than it can be produced. When the body’s core temperature reaches 95°F, you have entered hypothermia. Hypothermia is dangerous because the body’s organs can no longer function normally. Left untreated, the circulatory and respiratory system can fail and lead to death. Symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, slurred speech, slow/shallow breathing, weak pulse, clumsiness, drowsiness, confusion, loss of consciousness and bright red skin. Make sure employees are dressed according to the weather and can take breaks to warm up.
When it’s below freezing, your job sites, facilities and offices have the hazard of ice. Walkways should be cleared to provide a safe walking surface and prevent falls. Falls are dangerous and can lead to other serious injuries, hip fractures, brain injuries, broken limbs, etc. You must also protect people from falling snow and ice, so pay close attention to entrances and exits.
Traveling by auto has its own inherent risks. Add in weather-related issues and the risk skyrockets. Cold-weather travelers should be prepared in case they become stranded. Additional clothing, emergency flares, extra water, food, first aid kit, ice scraper, jumper cables, and cellular phone chargers. You must also keep vehicles maintained to reduce the chances of being stuck alongside the road. Batteries often die during the winter months due to the extra strain required to start vehicles from thickening motor oil. Also, keep vehicle fuel topped off. Should you become stranded, it may take time for someone to get to you. In these extreme cold temperatures, be prepared to wait an hour or more to be reached.
There’s little we can do to change the weather, but we can take steps to protect our employees and make sure they are safe.