Column: Working in the Cold

Depending on where you reside and work this season, Old Man Winter might be knocking on your door, bringing you snow, ice, and chilling temperatures. For those in warmer areas of the country, it may be difficult to imagine some winter weather extremes. For instance, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Climate Extremes Committee, the existing record for lowest temperature in the United States was -80°F in Prospect Creek, Alaska, in 1971. Luckily, most workers will not encounter conditions quite so extreme.

Workers exposed to extreme cold or who work in cold environments may be at risk for cold-related illnesses and injuries. Susceptible workers, such as those working without shelter, outdoors, or in an area that is poorly insulated or without heat, may be put into a dangerous situation when cold weather prevails. What constitutes cold stress and its effects can vary across different areas of the country. In regions relatively unaccustomed to winter weather, even near freezing temperatures can put unaccustomed workers at risk.

Whenever temperatures drop decidedly below normal and as wind speed increases, heat can more rapidly leave the body. If workers are unable to keep warm, these cold conditions may lead to serious health problems, such as chilblains, trench foot, frostbite, and hypothermia. Hypothermia in particular, can be deadly. If a worker experiences an abnormally low body temperature, the brain is affected, making it difficult or impossible to think clearly or move well. This makes hypothermia particularly dangerous because a person may not know it is occurring and may be unable to take actions to warm themselves or seek medical care.

The following are a few recommendations that employers can follow to protect workers from cold stress:

  • Schedule routine maintenance and repair jobs in cold areas for warmer months.
  • Schedule cold jobs for the warmer part of the day.
  • Reduce the physical demands of workers.
  • Use relief workers or assign extra workers for long, demanding jobs.
  • Provide warm liquids to workers to consume.
  • Provide warm areas for use during break periods.
  • Monitor workers who are at risk of cold stress.

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