6 Cold Weather Safety Tips for Construction Sites

Working outside on construction sites in low temperatures can have a serious impact on an employee’s health if safety risks have been ignored. With temperatures dropping as low as -10°C at night in the UK, employers have a duty to determine what is a safe minimum working temperature on site and consider if the job can be completed later during warmer temperatures.

The Law

Whilst there is no specific law on minimum temperatures while working outside, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to make a suitable assessment of the risks to the health and safety of their employees, and take action where necessary and where reasonably practicable.

In addition, the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007 states:

Section 43 (Temperature and weather protection)

(1) Suitable and sufficient steps shall be taken to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that during working hours the temperature at any place of work indoors is reasonable having regard to the purpose for which that place is used.

(2) Every place of work outdoors shall, where necessary to ensure the health and safety of persons at work there, be so arranged that, so far as is reasonably practicable and having regard to the purpose for which that place is used and any protective clothing or work equipment provided for the use of any person at work there, it provides protection from adverse weather.

Employers must consider thermal comfort, thinking about a person’s state of mind in terms of if they feel too cold.  By managing this, you are likely to improve morale and productivity as well as improving health and safety. Employees working in uncomfortably cold environments are more likely to behave unsafely because their ability to make decisions and perform manual tasks deteriorates. They are also more likely to take shortcuts to get out of the cold weather, wear the incorrect personal protective equipment (P.P.E.), and lose concentration on tasks, increasing the risk of errors occurring.

What are the health risks?

In extreme situations, employees can suffer from the following health conditions:

Chilblains

Chilblains are small, itchy swellings on the skin that are the result of an abnormal reaction to damp, cold weather in the winter. They most often affect a person’s toes, fingers, heels, ears and nose and can be uncomfortable, but rarely cause any permanent damage. They normally heal within a few weeks if further exposure to the cold weather is avoided.

Frostbite

The colder the temperature and the longer the body is exposed to freezing conditions, the more advanced frostbite can become. There are three stages of frostbite:

  • Early-stage (Frostnip) - Pins and needles, throbbing or aching will be present in the affected area and your skin will become cold, numb and white and possibly tingling.
  • Intermediate stage (Superficial frostbite) - Prolonged exposure will cause more tissue damage and the affected area will feel hard and frozen. When you’re out of the cold and the affected area has thawed out, the skin will turn red and blister which can be painful. You may see swelling and feel itching, due to it affecting the top layers of the skin and tissue. The skin underneath the blisters is usually still intact, but treatment is required to make sure there is no lasting damage.
  • Advanced stage - When continued exposure to the cold weather continues, frostbite becomes increasingly severe.  Skin becomes white, blue or blotchy, and the tissue underneath feels hard and cold to touch. Further damage may occur beneath the skin to tendons, muscles, nerves and bones. This is known as deep frostbite and requires urgent medical attention.

Hypothermia

Hypothermia is a dangerous drop in body temperature below 35°C, with around 37°C being normal body temperature.  Early signs of hypothermia where a person’s body temperature is between 32°C-35°C include shivering, cold and pale skin, slurred speech, fast breathing, tiredness and confusion.  If their temperature drops to below 32°C, they’ll usually stop shivering completely and may pass out, requiring emergency medical help.

Other Hazards to Consider

Visibility

During the winter months, fewer daylight hours means more work during the hours of darkness. Adequate lighting in all areas must be in place to provide good visibility. Workers operating plant must ensure there is good visibility in poor weather before operating and that all lights are in good working order.

Slippery surfaces

Wet weather and cold temperatures are likely to create icy roads and pavements, causing slipping hazards and dangerous driving conditions. Employers can help reduce the risks by spreading grit (rock salt) on access routes and displaying ice safety signs, warning users of the danger.

Plant and machinery

Consider the impact of the cold weather on the operation of plant and machinery on-site and the safety aspects of using the equipment.

 6 Cold Working Tips

Prepare.

Keep an eye on weather forecasts to plan and prepare ahead of the cold weather.  Spread grit (rock salt) on access routes and cover unfixed materials to protect from frost.  Position construction safety signs around site to warn of the dangers.

P.P.E.

Ensure the appropriate personal protective equipment (P.P.E.) is issued to workers such as thermal safety gloves.

Educate.

Educate workers about recognising the early symptoms of cold stress by displaying construction safety signs and posters.

Warm up.

Provide mobile facilities for warming up and encourage employees to intake hot drinks or soup.

Frequent Breaks.

Introduce more frequent rest breaks for employees to warm up.

Consider delaying the work.

Consider carrying out the work later during warmer temperatures.

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