On February 3, 1947, the tiny village of Snag in the Yukon set a record yet to be bested. With a week of cold air blowing in from Siberia, Snag netted the lowest air temperature ever recorded in Canada: -62.8 degrees Celsius. At that temperature, Environment Canada reports it takes less than two minutes for skin to freeze. Add a mild wind, and the time is halved.
But even at relatively balmy latitudes farther south, working outside during Canada’s winters is no picnic. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) suggests that cold can pack quite a wallop: everything from reduced sensitivity and dexterity that impairs manual task performance to stiffened joints and diminished mental alertness.
Fortunately, employers and employees needing to keep warm (and safe) out in the cold have many options to cover them from head to toe. As few jobs demand the same level of exertion throughout the entire workday, this is where layering may become a worker’s good and useful friend.
The outside of a winter jacket is equally important. If the job in question involves hazards like flash fires or arc flashes, the shell of a jacket will need to be made from flame-resistant woven synthetic fabrics, high-visibility (possibly fluorescent) woven polyester for road workers and a woven cotton/polyester blend for general outside work. All of these woven fabrics can be chemically treated to make them more water-repellent.
Just how woven materials react to the elements — say, the wind — can also be seen as a trade-off. A loose weave will allow an errant gust to carry with it all that insulating air a body has built up, but too tight is no better as that could give rise to problems in terms of dissipating mosture. And once too much moisture builds up inside a jacket, a cold feeling is sure to follow.
The solution may come from garments that have undergone considerable research and are no stranger to sweat: sportswear. Microporous films initially developed for athletic gear have two key properties: they act as a barrier to wind, and they release moisture at a controlled rate.
No matter how warm the jacket, a person won’t get any work done if his or her hands are too cold. And that demands gloves suitable for the weather and the task at hand. “You want to go with the most comfortable and dexterous glove that the temperature will allow,” says Joe Geng, vice-president of Superior Glove Works Ltd. in Acton, Ontario. His point illustrates yet another trade-off in winter wear: the colder the conditions, the less dexterity one can expect gloves to have.
At warmer temperatures, from 10 C above to five C below, Geng recommends a Terry-knit glove with a latex-coated palm. The knit provides adequate protection from the cold, while the coating offers good water repellence and grip in both wet and dry conditions.
Once temperature dips below -10 C, Geng says that coating on gloves — whether latex, nitrile or poly- vinyl chloride (PVC) — begins to stiffen and grip becomes markedly diminished. In these colder conditions, an alternative may be to go with either a heavily insulated leather glove or a well-insulated synthetic glove.
Leather has proven a popular choice for work in the cold, offering great grip at any temperature, comfort and durability, but little water repellence and insulation. Coated nitrile, latex and PVC count great dry grip, dexterity and water repellence among their welcome features, but have poor wet grip and stiffness below -10 C.
As the outside air dips under -20 C, it’s time to reach for the mitts, Geng suggests. “Mittens are warmer because they allow for air circulation, preventing a small isolated area, say a fingertip, from getting extremely cold.”
Still, the best glove in the world won’t do its job properly if it doesn’t fit well, and keeping the hands warm is clearly important to ensure workers maintain a firm grasp on workplace demands. But what about extremities due south? Having cold feet is, at best, distracting and, at worst, dangerous. The CCOHS advises insulating the legs by wearing “dancercise-type” warmers, insulating overshoes over work footwear, and insulating muffs around the ankles and over the top of the footwear.
The top footwear pick for heavy work in the cold is likely felt-lined, rubber-bottomed, leather-topped boots with removable felt insoles, the CCOHS notes. But if work involves standing in water or slush, waterproof boots are in order.
Cold affects workers up and down. The CCOHS cautions that almost 50 per cent of body heat is lost through the head. That makes outfitting a worker with properly insulating headgear particularly important. And while choosing the right touque may be second nature for Canadian workers, those donning a hard hat when working in the cold have options as well.
Claudio Dente, president of Dentec Safety Specialists Inc. in Newmarket, Ontario, says a wide variety of hard hat liners are available to trap escaping heat. At the most “cost effective” end are inserts with a quilted shell and flannel liner, Dente notes. A little warmer are 100 per cent cotton shells, with a flannel liner that covers the neck. For those wanting a “very thin, very soft, very warm” liner, he points to a polar fleece option with a detachable facemask.
Winter is knocking on the door, and it cannot be turned away. Protection from head to toe is a worker’s best defence against the cold.
Andrew D’Cruz was a former editorial assistant with OHS CANADA.