Workers in Cold Climates Advised to Take Special Safety Precautions

December 29, 2009

Construction crews never get completely used to working outside in the bitter cold.

“About all you can do is dress for it,” said Kevin Bikowski, superintendent for Miron Construction at its Plexus building site downtown. “Hopefully, you can get out of the wind, take frequent breaks. Your production obviously goes down in this kind of weather.”

Employers should approach brutal cold working conditions as they would any job-related hazard, and physically isolate workers from the elements as much as possible (enclosing cabs of heavy equipment, for example) and rotate them to make sure they evenly share the burden, said Dr. Brian Harrison, director of medical operations at Affinity Occupational Health, Menasha.

Dressing in layers bears repeating, he said, starting with a “moisture-managing” layer that allows perspiration to pass through but traps air, he said.

“The employer can also educate employees about sports drinks on the job and maybe even make them available,” Harrison said. “They’re actually more important in cold weather than they are in hot weather. People get dehydrated (in the cold) but in a different way.”

Sweetened sports drinks are probably better than a hot cup of coffee in the cold outdoor working environment since coffee doesn’t provide as much fluid or have any calories in it to burn, he added.

As a glass company continues its drive to close in the building skeleton, Miron is heating more exposed areas enclosed in plastic sheeting with very high capacity (1.1 million Btu) tube heaters known as salamanders to keep working temperatures tolerable.

“You try to keep moving,” Bikowski said.

The firm spreads stone chips in high traffic areas to prevent slips and falls.

Eric Schiller of Schiller’s Tree Service, Appleton, said subfreezing temperatures are harder on equipment than workers who dress for it.

“As long as it’s above zero we’re pretty much out working every day,” he said. “Once you’re moving pretty good it’s amazing how warm you do get. If it’s below zero the hydraulics on our equipment (like bucket trucks) won’t work.”

The tree felling and trimming crews dress in multiple layers and protect exposed flesh. They wear hard hats, safety glasses and face masks of neoprene or fleece, he said. But despite the cold, Schiller said it’s a part of a rugged outdoor job.

“Even if it’s miserable, we’re just happy to have the work,” he said.

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