OHS Canada Magazine

Protecting outdoor workers from winter hazards

Important that staff are prepared for cold weather conditions


Wearing a hat is important for workers to keep warm in winter, and there are many types available. (Avatar_023/Adobe Stock)

The mornings are frosty, and the afternoon air doesn’t just nip at your nose, it seems to bite at it (along with any exposed skin, for that matter).

As the sun goes down, the evenings get even colder, and act as a reminder that while the days are short, the season is long. Are your workers prepared for winter weather?

According to the Government of Canada, more than 80 people in Canada die each year from over-exposure to the cold, and many more suffer injuries resulting from trench foot, immersion foot, hypothermia, frostnip and frostbite.

That’s why it’s important to keep workers safe from the hazards of the cold — including the hazards we can’t visibly see.

How to protect workers from inclement winter weather

Consider wind chill, for example. Described as the cooling sensation caused by the combined effect of wind and temperature, wind chill increases the rate that the body loses heat.

Think of those times when you’ve been outdoors in the winter on a sunny yet blustery day. While the sunshine can make your body feel up to 10 degrees warmer, the wind can take away your body’s protective boundary layer (a thin layer of air close to the skin that the body uses to keep itself warm).

Once taken away, the body uses up more energy to protect itself with another boundary layer, but as the wind keeps blowing it away, the skin temperature drops, and we feel colder.

To work safely, these challenges have to be counterbalanced by proper insulation, like layered protective clothing and by physical activity.

Managers can also control workers’ exposure to the cold with a work/rest schedule. When it comes to working conditions like wind chill and extreme temperatures, prevention is key — if a worker must be outdoors, consider the following tips to keep them safe.

Dress in layers

Layers are important for a variety of reasons.

Wearing good quality clothing with high insulating properties will help trap air to create a warm boundary layer around the body. In addition, having several layers gives you the option to open or remove a layer if it gets wet or you become too warm.

Properly layering your clothing will help you stay warm and dry. Each outer layer should be larger than the inner layer, which prevents the outer layer from compressing the inner layers and decreasing the insulation properties of the clothing.

The inner layers should be able to wick moisture away from the skin to help keep it dry. Look for materials like polyester or polypropylene, which can be found in pieces like thermal underwear.

Any additional layers should provide enough insulation for the weather conditions. For example, look for a jacket with the ability to close off and open up at the waist, neck and wrists, and venting abilities in the underarm area. This helps to control how much heat is retained or given off.

Winter-proofing your work zone

Hats on – even with a hard hat

A large portion of body heat is lost from the head, and ears are a common location for frostbite or frostnip if exposed.

Wearing a hat is important for workers to keep warm, and there are many types available.

If a worker is required to wear a hard hat, ensure they have an appropriate winter liner and the headband is readjusted to protect the worker.

Frigid lows, but toasty toes

Feet can be one of the first body parts to feel the impact of cold weather. Wearing the right sock, or the right combination of socks, can help feet stay dry and warm.

Consider wearing a pair of thick socks that will help insulate the foot. Or, if two socks are preferred, consider layering with a moisture-wicking inner layer, and a thicker outer sock for insulation. Once the socks become damp, their insulation properties begin to decrease.

Wearing boots on the job? Pair your boots with the appropriate thickness of socks. If the socks are too thick, the boots may be too tight, squeezing the foot, leading to decreased blood flow and losing the insulating properties of the sock.  If the socks are too thin, the boots will fit loosely and may lead to blisters.


Winter worker tip: Encourage workers to bring an extra pair of socks with them to work. This will allow them to change socks if their feet get damp or wet.


Prepare and check-in

Before going outdoors, it’s important that workers are ready for their assigned work and the weather conditions. Make sure that workers are warmed up with the proper attire and encourage them to stretch to help prevent the risk of injury from cold muscles.

Regularly check in with workers to see how they are feeling, and if and how they are being impacted by the temperature.

To support workers, employers can adjust the pace or rate of work if needed, and provide instructions for re-warming, dressing properly for the weather, and what to do at the first sign of injuries like cold stress, frostbite, and hypothermia.

What to do about the ‘what ifs’

If a worker is out in the cold for too long or is not adequately protected from the elements, they may be at risk for mild to severe injuries or conditions, like frostbite or hypothermia.

Typically occurring on the fingertips, toes, nose, ears, cheeks, and chin, frostbitten skin can appear white and waxy, and leaves the area feeling numb. If a worker has frostbite, seek medical help right away.

Don’t rub or massage the area, and don’t warm the area until you can ensure it will stay warm. Remove any wet clothing and replace with dry clothing or blankets to warm the person slowly, avoiding direct heat to the affected area, which may burn the skin.

If a worker has been in the intense cold without adequate protective clothing, their body’s core temperature starts to fall. The sensation of cold followed by pain in exposed parts of the body is one of the first signs of hypothermia.

Seek medical attention immediately if you suspect a worker is showing signs and symptoms of hypothermia, like the interruption of shivering, diminished consciousness and dilated pupils. Those suffering from hypothermia may not be able to notice their own symptoms.

Stay safe throughout the season

No matter the season or the temperature, safety comes first.

Employers should always monitor the conditions and take every reasonable precaution to protect the health and safety of their employees. It’s not just the law; it’s the right thing to do.

When it comes to the cold, implementing a work/warm-up regimen, scheduling outdoor work for warmer days, and providing annual refresher training on the signs and symptoms of cold-related illness will help outdoor workers stay healthy and safe on the job.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS)  promotes the total well-being — physical, psychosocial, and mental health — of workers in Canada by providing information, advice, education, and management systems and solutions that support the prevention of injury and illness.

This CCOHS Corner feature appears in the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of OHS Canada.

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1 Comment » for Protecting outdoor workers from winter hazards
  1. Scott Catherall says:

    Excellent topic! I work as a Health and Safety Coordinator for a flat roof company. Our work takes us to Central and Southern Ontario. Dressing in layers is a must as well as staying active. The most difficult time of the day isn’t the work its getting on the move after taking a break.

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