5 ways to improve workplace safety for cold weather

Now that winter is just around the corner, many employers are considering turning up the thermostat, if they haven't done so already. But in some cases, it isn't possible to simply turn the heat on – construction sites, road work, excavations, electrical repair work and other outdoor occupations leave workers exposed to the elements. In these cases, organizations must make an effort to educate employees on safe practices to protect against cold weather hazards.

According to OSHA, exposure to freezing temperatures can lead to frostbite, hypothermia and trench foot. Other factors can contribute to the likelihood of those hazards, like wetness, wind chill, existing health complications or poor conditioning. It doesn't necessarily have to be below freezing to create the conditions for hypothermia or frostbite – in warmer regions, temperatures above freezing might still be considered dangerous because people won't be acclimated to the cold. No matter the region, all employers should take these five steps for improving cold weather safety:

1. Educate
Workers can help themselves the most by knowing how to work well in the cold. However, employers must take initiative to inform workers on measures like layering up, wearing waterproof boots and gloves, taking frequent breaks, staying hydrated and eating enough, according to EHS Today.

2. Provide PPE
Don't let a lack of equipment prevent workers from the safety they require. If an employee forgot a jacket, left gloves at home, or doesn't have the right boots, the best organizations will have those items on hand just in case. Since it gets dark early in the winter, reflective clothing is also an important provision.

3. Use signs
Not only do safety signs remind workers to bundle up, they also warn about dangers that may be hidden by snow or darkness. Additionally, they can keep workers safe from oncoming vehicles and pedestrians out of the harm's way. Again, reflective signs are an important investment – and one that may be required by the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices and other regulators.

The right precautions go a long way during cold weather work.
The right precautions go a long way during cold weather work.

4. Offer shelter
Especially for prolonged outdoor work, employees should be encouraged to take breaks often. That means they'll need someplace where they can warm up, drink some water, take a breather and prepare for the next session. Even a van, truck or trailer is sufficient for cold-weather shelter.

5. Stay informed
Employers can make their own jobs easier by staying on top of weather predictions – not just the daily temperature but the wind speed and chill factor, upcoming storms, overnight highs and lows, and other details. When conditions look extreme, employers must always put safety ahead of productivity and deadlines. Nothing is worth placing workers at risk. No matter how many precautions they take, Mother Nature can still outmatch workers during the most severe weather.

Even indoor workplaces should still be aware of the conditions outside. People travel to and from their jobs and employers should be on top of icy conditions, extreme cold and other hazards that can plague workers during a commute. However, as long as organizations and employees are prudent and cautious, cold weather work doesn't have to be a dangerous affair.