Working Safely in Winter Weather

February 1, 2023

There’s little we can do to change the weather, but we can take steps to protect our employees and ensure they are safe. Be prepared for safety scenarios associated with winter weather before it arrives.

Working Safely in Winter Weather

It’s cold, windy and sometimes snowy. Welcome to working outside in the winter.

Winter weather can be harsh and create unique safety risks for your employees. This is especially true for jobs where employees work outside or are exposed to weather conditions throughout the day. Your biggest concern should be their safety.

It’s important to be prepared for all scenarios associated with inclement weather before the weather arrives and to make sure employees know relevant policies and procedures.

Winter weather leads to “cold stress”

Working in extreme cold can be dangerous for employees. Precipitation and wind multiply that danger. When the body can no longer maintain its normal temperature, a condition called “cold stress” occurs.

OSHA has issued guidelines offering precautionary measures to prevent cold stress because it can lead to tissue damage, hypothermia, frostbite and immersion/trench.

Factors that contribute to cold stress include:

  • Cold air temperatures
  • High-velocity air movement (i.e., wind)
  • Damp air
  • Windchill
  • Contact with cold water or surfaces.

It is important to remember that even temperatures of 50° F with enough rain and wind can cause cold stress.

Preventing cold stress

There are several precautions employees should take while working in cold or dangerous weather:

  • Take breaks to get warm (get inside buildings, vehicles, windbreaks, etc.)
  • Drink plenty of liquids but avoid caffeine and alcohol (These cause a more rapid loss of heat)
  • Avoid smoking, which constricts blood flow to the skin
  • Be aware of any cold weather-related side effects that their medication may have on the person
  • Know and understand symptoms of cold-related illnesses and injuries
  • Warm up and stretch before physical work to prevent muscle pulls and injuries
  • Wear at least three layers of protective clothing: 1) something close to the  skin to wick moisture away, 2) an insulation layer, 3) an outer wind and waterproof layer (Outer layers should be loose to allow ventilation and prevent overheating)
  • Wear a hat or hood
  • Wear insulated boots
  • Wear gloves – The cold can cause injuries to exposed skin, and cold hands also make one more prone to injury when handling machinery or other objects

OSHA requires employers to pay only for protective gear that is out of the ordinary. Employees are responsible for everyday clothing like those listed above.

Training for winter weather working conditions

Winter weather can cause unusual conditions and higher risks, so training employees on safety procedures is important. They should understand the danger of exposed skin, insufficient protective wear and cold/wet/slippery equipment.

Employees also should be trained to recognize cold-weather illnesses and injuries in themselves and co-workers. Help them be aware of how to treat such incidents.  OSHA encourages employers to train workers on the appropriate engineering controls to regulate work space conditions, personal protective equipment (hats, gloves, etc), and work practices to reduce the risk of cold stress.

Watch out for is hypothermia, which is dangerous because the body’s organs can no longer function normally. Left untreated, the circulatory and respiratory systems 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.

Winter driving while on company time

Another concern regarding winter weather is employees who drive a company car or vehicle as part of their workday. Needless to say, driving in severe weather can be extremely dangerous, so it is vital to take precautions.

A mechanic should give all vehicles a safety check before bad weather hits.

Make sure vehicles have an emergency kit for winter weather. Include clothing, emergency flares, extra water, food, a first aid kit, an ice scraper, jumper cables and cellular phone chargers.

You must also maintain vehicles to reduce the chances of getting stuck alongside the road. Batteries often die during winter due to the extra strain required to start vehicles from thickening motor oil.

Also, keep vehicle fuel topped off. It may take time for someone to get to you if you become stranded. In these extreme temperatures, be prepared to wait an hour or more to be reached.

To protect your company against liability, employees who may drive in bad weather on company time should be trained in safe, cautious driving techniques and what to do in case of an accident.

Wintertime slips, trips and falls

When it’s below freezing, your job sites, facilities and offices could have ice on the ground. 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.

Communication is key

What good are the above policies and prevention tips if your team doesn’t know about them? Inform employees about your company policies related to inclement weather and watch out for one another’s safety.

Let your employees know you’ll communicate a closing or delay due to bad weather. And when bad weather is coming, address all your policies again, reminding employees to plan for the worst potential outcome to ensure everyone is prepared for the weather.

There’s little we can do to change the weather, but we can take steps to protect our employees and ensure they are safe.

About The Author

Aaron Paris, CSP, ASP

Aaron Paris, CSP, ASP
Email As the Director of Safety, Property & Casualty, Aaron has more than six years of experience in workplace safety and 12 years in law enforcement. Aaron consults with clients on a wide variety of safety issues such as worker safety, auto, property risk and other safety procedures. He is also authorized to teach OSHA 10- and 30- hour courses.