Winter weather wellness
Many occupations are affected by the environmental conditions that exist in winter. Preparing both your workplace and workers for the colder weather is essential from a safety perspective. Many tasks become more difficult, the risk landscape changes, and the personal health and safety of all workers needs to be considered. What are some of these changes and risks that need to be managed? What additional controls may need to be considered?
This article highlights some of these unique issues that are present particularly in the cooler southern regions of Australia, but also have relevance to other states as well. As I write this article, an overnight weather forecast was predicting snow in Queensland! The contrast and unpredictability of climates can bring on weather conditions that are very abnormal.
What are the risks?
Winter weather has several aspects that need to be considered. The hazards of cold, wet and windy conditions present risks of:
- slips, trips and falls due to:
- reduced visibility with the decreased sunlight due to shorter and cloudy days; and
- slippery paths, leaf litter, moss, snow and ice that are very treacherous underfoot; and
- exposure to cold including chills, hypothermia and associated health effects.
Extreme cold can significantly affect the human body. Hypothermia, where the body slowly shuts down essential functions to conserve heat loss and keep vital organs warm, can eventually lead to death. Some of the early symptoms are obvious like tingling, shivering, pale skin, dizziness, nausea and increased heart rate. Further exposure can lead to unconsciousness, significant confusion, slurred speech, and a weak pulse. As the body attempts to keep vital organs alive, blood circulation is reduced to the arms and legs. This can ultimately result in loss of the extremities, including fingers and toes, from what is commonly called frostbite. This can even occur in temperatures around 10°C, and wind chill can add to the environmental effects as it quickly cools the body.
Even if this extreme result does not occur, there are other safety issues where unsteadiness or confusion can cause injuries to our workers if they stumble and fall. Other issues can be loss of dexterity, decreased vision and poor judgement, which can also have catastrophic effects.
How to prepare for winter and reduce the risks
Winter preparation requires planning and can be wide ranging. There are a number of key issues you should address for the cold months:
- vehicle preparation: Check lighting, heating, tyre condition, wipers and antifreeze coolant; and provide reflective triangles and vests if required due to reduced day light;
- additional temporary lighting could be required for outside work;
- heating and shelter for workers should be provided;
- job rotation or roster changes to reduce the amount of exposure;
- cold weather appropriate clothing, such as hot packs, heated jackets and sturdy shoes with plenty of tread to prevent slips and trips; and
- hot food and drink should be available to increase the core temperature of the body.
You must provide a workplace that is safe and without risks to health and safety. As conditions change, you will have to change with them. Outdoor work environments are not easily controlled. The risk to workers of exposure to extreme cold conditions is well known. The possibility of severe injury or fatality could be the result of working in these tough environments. Use the information in this article to help you when considering control options that will reduce the risks of winter.
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