Winter weather poses a number of hazards for professional tradespeople. Layers of snow and ice combined with frigid temperatures can damage property and threaten your health and the safety of your work crew. Working outside in cold temperatures for extended periods of time can lead to serious injuries and even fatalities. Learn cold weather safety tips to protect yourself, your crew and your property in cold winter climates.
Prepare buildings for winter weather
The best way to prevent structure damage from cold weather is to take precautions before the temperature drops. It is more cost-effective to stop pipes from freezing, roofs from collapsing and surfaces from becoming slick before it happens than it is to clean up the mess. Follow these cold weather tips to help you winterize a building.
Perform heating system maintenance. Heating systems that are clogged with dust or improperly sealed can overwork the heating unit and lead to inflated utility costs and even HVAC system failure. Hire an HVAC professional to perform maintenance before you turn a building’s heating system on for the season.
- Make sure the building is properly sealed. Snowstorms, wind and freezing rain can turn small gaps in building siding and insulation into large gaps. This can lead to uncomfortable drafts and costly moisture damage.
- Caulk and seal around doors and windows.
- Repair damaged siding and insulation.
Inspect gutters. Clogged gutters or gutters that have gaps and holes are in prime condition for dangerous icicles and slippery patches on walkways to form. This puts building occupants at risk of injury and creates a legal liability for building owners.
- Clean gutters out regularly before and throughout the winter.
- Repair any gaps and replace any worn gutter components.
- Point drains away from walkways to prevent water from pooling and freezing.
Bonus tip: In addition to keeping gutters clean, be sure to scatter ice melt on sidewalks and walkways around the building grounds to prevent slip and falls.
- Remember to check the roof. Minor roof damage can worsen rapidly and collapse when the snow starts to pile on.
- Repair and replace any damaged shingles or roofing material.
- Make sure the roof is properly insulated.
- Address any structural issues that cause water to pool on flat roofs.
- Pay close attention to plumbing. In addition to increased utility costs, plumbing systems that are not winterized can lead to pipes freezing and bursting.
- Insulate pipe and caulk around pipe where it enters the building.
- Drain irrigation and sprinkler systems. Disconnect and drain hoses.
- Instruct building occupants to drip faucets and open under-sink cabinets when it freezes.
Prevent cold-related illnesses
Working outside in winter weather for extended periods of time puts workers at risk of cold-related illnesses and injuries that range from mild to serious according to the Centers for Disease Control. Protect yourself and your crew by learning about cold-related illnesses and get tips to prevent getting sick or hurt on the job this winter.
- Chilblains: Itchy red bumps that form on extremities, especially fingers, noses and toes, are known as chilblains. They are caused by damage to the blood vessels in the skin from cold temperatures. Symptoms are typically mild, but the damage is permanent and will recur whenever the skin is exposed to the cold.
- Prevention: Take regular breaks from working in cold weather. Keep extremities covered with gloves, hats and ski masks to insulate exposed skin.
- Treatment: Use a hydrocortisone cream to stop the skin from itching. Seek medical treatment for persistent symptoms.
- Trench foot: When feet are enclosed in cold, wet shoes for extended periods of time, foot tissue will start to die and become gangrenous in a condition known as trench foot. Symptoms of trenchfoot include leg cramps, swelling, blisters and skin on the feet with a gray or purple color.
- Prevention: Keep feet warm and dry by wearing clean socks and waterproof footwear.
- Treatment: Avoid walking on feet and seek medical attention immediately.
- Frostbite: Cold temperatures can freeze body tissue, which stops blood circulation and causes skin to become gangrenous. Symptoms include numbness, tingling and a blueish color of the skin. Extremities like fingers, toes and noses are particularly susceptible to frostbite.
- Prevention: Avoid working in cold weather for extended periods of time. Cover extremities with protective apparel including gloves, hats and heated clothing.
- Treatment: Move to a warm area immediately and immerse affected areas in warm, not hot, water. Seek medical attention immediately.
- Hypothermia: When a body is no longer able to heat itself in cold climates, the body temperature begins to drop in a condition known as hypothermia. Early symptoms include intense shivering, extreme fatigue and confusion. Later on, the shivering will cease, pupils will dilate, the heart rate will drop and the person affected will become unconscious.
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- Prevention: When working outside in cold weather, take frequent breaks in heated areas. Drink hot beverages and wear layers of clothing to keep the cold at bay.
- Treatment: Hypothermia is a very serious condition. If symptoms of hypothermia are apparent, call emergency services and move the affected person to a warm area immediately. Remove any wet clothing and heat the body from the core with an emergency blanket. If the person is unconscious, perform CPR until emergency personnel arrive.
Prepare your work van or truck for winter weather
Trade professionals who rely on a work van or truck to run their business should be especially mindful of vehicle safety in winter weather. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there are nearly 500,000 injuries and over 6,000 fatalities from vehicular accidents resulting from cold, wet and snowy conditions in an average winter. Follow these tips to make your work van or truck ready for the road this winter.
- Set your tires to the tire manufacturer’s recommended PSI for winter weather. Cold air shrinks, which can cause tires to deflate to unsafe levels.
- Clear snow from your work van or truck’s tailpipe prior to starting it up. Exhaust can build up inside of the cab and lead to fatal carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Stock your work van with winter weather essentials, including: Get tips to help you organize your work van >>
Recover from winter weather
After the snow has fallen and the temperatures have dropped, follow these winter safety tips to help you prevent injury and keep buildings safe and operable in cold weather.
- Stay away from downed power lines. Never attempt to clear fallen tree limbs from power lines. Instead, call the utility company.
- Control ice buildup. Clear icicles from overhead areas. Lay down mats in front of entry ways to increase traction. Distribute ice melt on walkways and sidewalks.
Exercise caution when using gas-powered equipment. Run gas-powered generators and snow blowers outside and away from doors and windows to prevent deadly carbon monoxide fumes from drifting into a building.
Be safe with extension cords. Inspect extension cords for signs of wear and tear. If there are signs of damage, discontinue use and replace with a new extension cord. Never overload or daisy-chain power strips.
Shovel snow cautiously. Over 10,000 people suffer a heart attack when shoveling snow on average every year. Take frequent breaks from shoveling, and never shovel snow immediately after eating or while smoking. Stop shoveling immediately and rest if you feel faint or exhausted.
Bonus tip: The shovel pan size should be proportional to the size of the person using it. A smaller person should use a shovel with a smaller pan to avoid injury while shoveling snow.