Cold weather shouldn’t chill safety precautions for contractors, OSHA says

The onset of cold weather during the winter season means contractors and their employees should take extra precautions when working outdoors, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“Workers need to understand the conditions of the environment they’re working in,” said Tim Janus, workforce development director for the Associated General Contractors of America Maine chapter. He relates workers’ knowledge of what to do in cold weather to their knowledge of road construction site conditions.

“If you know what happens when a speeding car hits you, you are not apt to stand in front of a speeding car,” Janus said.

Janus said contractors in Maine, where winter typically brings temperatures of 20 degrees below zero and wind chills of minus 40, watch for combinations of cold, wet and windy conditions.

“Add those three together and they’ll kill you,” he said of the worst circumstances.

Janus recommends contractors teach their employees about proper layering of clothing – cotton should be ditched for polypropylene, which retains warmth when wet – and signs of hazardous health conditions, such as frost bite.

OSHA said some of the danger signs for health in cold weather include uncontrolled shivering, slurred speech, clumsy movements, fatigue and confused behavior. Janus and OSHA recommend workers call for help if these signs are observed. “Watch fellow employees,” Janus said.

To reduce your risk of frostbite, dress properly in cold temperatures, according to the medical Web site, This includes protecting your hands, feet, nose and ears. also recommends wearing warm, layered clothing, a hat and scarf (or a ski mask), warm socks and mittens (not gloves). Go inside periodically to warm up. Wet clothing or skin can increase your risk of frostbite.

Jim Benike, treasurer for general contractor Alvin E. Benike in Rochester, Minn., deals with cold weather for nearly half the year. His company employs more than 100 construction workers who work outdoors throughout the year.

Benike said Minnesota winter temperatures typically fall to 10 degrees below zero. He said the company would often forgo work in those conditions, depending on the wind chill.

Aside from the usual clothing advice, Benike said workers must be aware of their footing while on the jobsite in freezing weather. Puddles and frost on metal can create precarious environments, especially when workers are limited in their mobility by heavy layers of clothing, he said.

“I can’t really recall in my whole [work] history there being a frostbite injury,” he said. “I can recall a lot of those [slips and falls] though.”

OSHA tips to protect workers in cold environments

  • Recognize the environmental and workplace conditions that may be dangerous.
  • Learn the signs and symptoms of cold-temperature-induced illnesses and injuries and what to do to help workers.
  • Train workers about cold-induced illnesses and injuries.
  • Encourage workers to wear proper clothing for cold, wet and windy conditions, including layers that can be adjusted to changing conditions.
  • Be sure workers in extreme conditions take a frequent short break in warm dry shelters to allow their bodies to warm up.
  • Try to schedule work for the warmest part of the day.
  • Avoid exhaustion or fatigue because energy is needed to keep muscles warm.
  • Use the buddy system — work in pairs so one worker can recognize danger signs in the other.
  • Drink warm, sweet beverages (sugar water, sports-type drinks) and avoid drinks with caffeine (coffee, tea, sodas or hot chocolate).
  • Eat warm, high-calorie foods such as hot pasta dishes.
  • Remember, workers face increased risks when they take certain medications, are in poor physical condition or suffer from illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension or cardiovascular disease.

Patrick Beeson can be contacted at [email protected].