Winter Construction Safety: How to Keep Your Crews Safe in Cold Weather

Category: Crew | By Holly Hughes-Barnes | 3 minute read | Updated Nov 21, 2023
keep your crews safe  during the winter

Investing in winter construction safety isn’t just the right thing to do for your crews; it's also good for business. 

Winter safety programs help prevent cold stress and injuries that can stop work, lower productivity, and result in costly insurance claims. Plus, companies that prioritize safety create happier employees and find hiring and keeping top talent easier.

In a recent report from Dodge Construction Network, contractors who prioritized safety reported that they were able to:

  • Negotiate better insurance terms.
  • Improve their ability to bring in new business.
  • See improved performance from subs.
  • Increase worker retention.

What is cold stress?

Cold stress is when the body’s temperature decreases due to cold exposure. If left untreated, cold stress can result in these illnesses:

  • Trench foot: Trench foot is caused by prolonged exposure to cold, wet conditions. It damages the nerves and blood vessels in the feet, leading to pain, swelling, and numbness.
  • Chilblains: This condition results from the repeated exposure of the skin to cold, but not freezing, air. It causes red, itchy, swollen patches on the skin, typically on the face, fingers, legs, and toes. Chilblains are painful but not as severe as frostbite.
  • Frostbite: This happens when the skin and underlying tissues freeze, usually affecting extremities like fingers, toes, nose, and ears. Symptoms include numbness, tingling, and skin discoloration. Severe frostbite can lead to permanent damage.
  • Hypothermia: This occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce it, causing the body temperature to drop to 95°F or lower. Symptoms include shivering, confusion, slurred speech, and fatigue. In severe cases, it’s life-threatening.

What is cold stress?

Tips to keep your crew safe and warm during the winter 

With cold weather fast approaching, here’s how to ensure your construction workers stay safe and warm in the winter.

1. Monitor winter weather conditions daily

Pay close attention to winter storm warnings and increasing wind-chill factors.

Seventy percent of winter-related deaths are due to vehicle crashes, and 25 percent are due to being caught in the cold without shelter.

Staying on top of storm warnings gives you time to notify workers of severe winter weather before it hits. So they can secure work areas and leave the site safely. Instead of getting caught outside in freezing weather, stuck on site, or in an accident on the road home.

Factoring in windchill ensures you don’t put workers in unsafe conditions without realizing it.

Even if the thermometer shows it’s 35°F, a 10-mile-per-hour wind can make it feel like 27°F because wind makes the body lose heat faster than normal. The lower the temperature and the higher the wind, the quicker your workers can succumb to frostbite and hypothermia

So, it doesn’t always make sense to push through cold weather to get work done.

2. Be prepared to modify work schedules or suspend operations 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has no specific rule for working in cold conditions. But the OSHA Act of 1970 requires employers to protect employees from hazards, like cold stress, that could lead to severe harm or death at the workplace.

So, how cold is too cold? When should you modify or suspend construction?

The answer depends partly on where you live. 

Not everyone can handle cold the same way. People have different tolerance levels because of where they're from and how much cold they've experienced before. In Southern states with mild winters, people consider temperatures “near freezing” cold. 

Shockingly, a person can suffer from hypothermia in temperatures above freezing (most cases occur between 30 and 50 degrees) because other factors besides temperature affect how fast a human body loses heat.

OSHA has developed a formula outlining the risk factors contributing to cold stress: Low Temperature + Wetness + Wind Speed = Danger of Illness or Injury.

So, if temperatures are lower than normal for your area, winds are high, and it’s raining or snowing, the risk of cold injury is high. Consider suspending operations or changing tasks to bring crews inside in these conditions.

When your crews do work in the cold, set up procedures that lessen the risk of cold stress.

3. Ensure employees wear adequate winter clothing

To stay warm in cold weather, workers should layer clothing. 

OSHA recommends a moisture-wicking inner layer, a middle insulating layer, and an outer layer for wind and rain protection. Clothes should be loose to maintain proper circulation. 

Additionally, workers should wear hats, insulated gloves, and waterproof boots.

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4. Provide warm breaks

Workers should take frequent breaks to rest, warm up, and change out of wet clothes.

Ensure they stay warm by giving them heated break areas. Remember to use well-ventilated portable heaters and carbon monoxide sensors. 

Additionally, offer warm, non-caffeinated beverages to help workers stay warm and hydrated. 


5. Use a buddy system to monitor for cold stress 

A buddy system helps spot the symptoms of cold stress early and ensures a quick response. 

Each person watches for signs such as shivering, confusion, or numbness. If someone starts showing symptoms, their buddy assists and seeks help so cold stress doesn’t turn into something more serious.

Along with using protocols to keep workers warm, inspect sites for winter hazards that could cause slips and falls.


6. Remove winter hazards from worksites

Keep your jobsites winter-ready. Remove all snow and ice from surfaces where people walk and work, such as walkways, roofs, scaffolding, and ladders.

Spread salt on walkways to melt ice and keep it from reforming. Advise workers to take slower, shorter steps to prevent slips and falls, especially when carrying materials and tools. Mark icy areas that can't be cleared and rope them off. 

Remove any hanging icicles. Or rope off areas to prevent workers from accidentally dislodging them, which could create falling object hazards.

Check vehicles daily. Clear ice and snow from windshields, top off wiper fluid and antifreeze, and keep gas tanks full. Stock trucks with emergency kits.


7. Train workers on winter-related safety procedures 

Winter construction safety starts with training. 

Conduct toolbox talks and hands-on safety sessions that show crews how to spot winter hazards. So they can remedy them before tragedy strikes. 

Ensure supervisors and crew leaders consider temperature, wind chill, and wet conditions before placing workers outside. Teach outdoor workers to spot signs of cold stress in themselves and others and give them basic first-aid skills.


Keep daily tabs on your teams’ safety

Building safety check-ins is easy with ClockShark. You can create customized questionnaires and collect important information from your team before they clock out of work. 

With ClockShark, you can verify rest breaks, confirm the removal of onsite hazards, and check that your team is following safety protocols. You can also assign questionnaires to specific crew members, teams, or jobs and receive notifications when workers provide unexpected responses.

Learn more about ClockShark’s Clock Out Questions and take the first step to keep your team safe during the cold weather. 

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