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Winter work safety

What role does scheduling play in cold weather work?


Responding is Alsie Nelson, product manager, Ergodyne, St. Paul, MN.

Limiting exposure to cold temperatures is paramount to preventing illness and injury when working in winter weather. Beyond investing in gear to keep workers warm and dry, safety managers should be rethinking how long – and at what time of day – crews are in the elements.

A cold environment forces the body to work harder to maintain its temperature. Cold ambient air temperature, water and snow all draw heat from the body. High wind speeds and dampness work to accelerate heat loss. For example, when the air temperature is 40° F and the wind speed is 35 mph, exposed skin experiences conditions equivalent to the air temperature being 28° F; the faster the wind speeds, the greater the impact of cold temperatures on the body.

So, counterintuitive as it may sound, shorter shifts during cold weather actually can increase productivity while protecting the health of your workers. Planning for shorter shifts can include adjusting work schedules or rotations to the cold weather or plummeting temps. Scheduling shifts in the middle of the day allows you to take advantage of the solar heat load that accumulates on sunny days. A work/break schedule based on air temperature and wind speed is a smart tool for determining the number and length of work breaks needed during the course of a shift.

Again, this type of administrative control helps reduce the physical demands on workers, and, in the long run, actually increases productivity and worker safety. When none of the above options is viable, adding relief workers can more effectively distribute workload.

Don’t forget to hydrate

As counterintuitive as increasing productivity with shorter shifts may sound, so too might the danger of dehydration in the dead of winter. But the fact is, dehydration is as common in the winter months as it is in the summer months, and a dehydrated body is more susceptible to common colds and the flu (which are more prevalent in winter).

Problem is, most people tend to drink less during cold weather because lower temperatures suppress thirst, even when the body requires fluids. Thirst is not a great indicator of hydration levels, anyway. Just because you aren’t sweating as much as you would in the blazing heat of July doesn’t mean you’re not losing moisture. In fact, you can see it leaving your body when temps hit freezing and your breath becomes visible.

Hydration tips:

  • Start and end each day with a glass of water.
  • Keep water handy and drink throughout the day.
  • Enhance water intake with an electrolyte solution, sports drink or salty snack.

Editor's note: This article represents the independent views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

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