Working in the Cold

Much is written in Australia about working in the heat, but those who work in winter Down Under, especially outdoors, can have real problems with working in the cold.  So too can those who work in refrigerated conditions with food, in preparation, packing and storing.

Whilst hypothermia and frostbite are more dramatic and dangerous issues associated with colder climates, prolonged exposure to cold can cause other health and safety problems.  Your body is working harder than usual when it needs to keep you warm, and blood flow can be reduced.  This naturally leads to fatigue, and can be a factor with poor judgement.  Add into this people working in haste just to get out of the cold, and serious mistakes can be made.  How do your fingers feel after you’ve had to rummage around in the freezer?  A bit sore?  Hard to move?  Imagine if that’s how you felt most of the day at work.  The combination of pain and lack of dexterity can also lead to people making dangerous mistakes at work.

Cold places can often be wet places, due to condensation or the weather.  This can mean that people are working in slippery conditions, which can be quite dangerous.  This can be when working on foot, or with machinery that might be needed.  There’s almost nowhere soft to land when you slip in a food factory.  Try stopping a tractor on a steep, muddy slope.

So, what can we do to minimise these problems?  Time limits for working in these conditions can help reduce the effects of cold on people.  Think about rotating people and having more frequent breaks in warm conditions, with warm food and drinks available, to enable people to recover better.  The right personal protective equipment for the job helps.  Mittens will keep your hands warmer, but I was reading about employees who wear mittens over their gloves, and only take the mittens off for the times when they really have to work with their fingers.  Keeping changes of clothes can be helpful, if clothing gets wet.  Wearing clothes that minimise sweat, so layers of natural fibres next to the body, as sweat gets cold later.  Have drying spaces at work for wet clothing and PPE.  Reduce wind chill where possible.  Also, train any supervisors to recognise signs of cold stress:

  • Irritability,
  • Confusion,
  • Disorientation,
  • Shivering,
  • Loss of coordination.

People displaying these symptoms need to get into a warm environment immediately.

Think about ways you can reduce the effects of cold in your workplace.  Also discuss working in the cold (and any other health and safety issues) with your workforce to see what improvements can be made.