Weather Toolbox Talk: Working in Extreme Heat or Cold
One of the major factors to be taken into account when keeping everyone safe on a worksite is one which can’t be controlled in any way by even the top bosses of a construction company: the weather. Even everyday fluctuations in weather like rain showers or periods of strong winds can make a big difference in how workers must operate. Extreme weather conditions, which are common in many parts of North America, can have even more drastic effects.
Whether it’s winter cold and snow or scorching heat of summer, extreme weather cannot be ignored by workers. Any safety practices must take the conditions into account, whether this means requiring different PPE or taking extra measures against risks like falling or electrocution.
Toolbox talks on working in harsh weather are important, particularly for sites in climates where work is likely tobe severely affected. It makes sense to schedule one (or more) to discuss cold weather at the beginning of winter, and one (or more) to talk about hot weather as summer begins. We’ll start with some tips for your cold weather toolbox talk!
Cold weather toolbox talks
There’s plenty to discuss with your people regarding working in cold conditions. Winter brings reduced visibility, slippery surfaces, and much more—even the frigid temperatures themselves can cause issues.
As in any toolbox talk, you should begin this one with an example or story which illustrates the dangers of working in cold weather—an incident or a near-miss situation. Someone on-site may have a compelling example to share, so ask around! Using an anecdote that is relevant to the weather conditions in your location is ideal.
Beyond that, we have outlined two of the major points to cover in a toolbox talk—or a series of them.
Slips, trips, and falls
Of major concern during the winter months is preventing slips, trips, and falls. These are relevant all year round, but moisture and ice in winter only increase the risk. The following are some season-specific tips to share with workers and implement on-site.
- Ensure that everyone is on the lookout for any build-up of ice and snow where people may walk or stand. This should be removed immediately; it’s important to keep on top of it.
- By the same token, be extra vigilant about spilled liquids as these can turn quickly to slippery ice.
- Everyone should walk with hands free to catch themselves in case of a slip.
- Use boots or footwear with extra tread if possible.
- Add grip to walkways which become slippery in the winter.
- Visibility is affected as snow blankets items on the ground and blizzards can make it difficult to see any distance. Those walking around a site should take extra care about placement of feet, particularly when working at height.
Of course, the usual fall protection measures apply in winter; they are even more crucial.
Hypothermia and frostbite
These conditions, caused by a loss of body heat, are silent and invisible hazards. Each worker must take responsibility for preventing them. Both extreme cold temperatures and increased wind speeds can contribute to hypothermia and frostbite.
Symptoms of hypothermia start with shivering and go on to include sudden cessation of shivering, slurred speech, slow breathing and eventually loss of consciousness. Frostbite begins with numbness and reddened skin, and sufferers will go on to develop gray or white patches. Everybody on site should not only take care of themselves but look out for the symptoms in their coworkers.
For both of these conditions, Immediate medical attention is required. While waiting for medics, administer first aid. This will include removing any wet clothing and trying to gently raise the body temperature of the sufferer with dry clothing, blankets, shelter, a warm environment, and sharing body heat.
This OSHA Quick Card has some great tips for preventing cold stress in the winter weather. Providing heaters where possible is ideal, and employees should be encouraged to use these. They should also be encouraged to take regular breaks in a warm and sheltered environment. One of the best ways, of course, to prevent frostbite and hypothermia is for all workers to wear the appropriate clothing and PPE, from jackets to gloves and sufficiently thick socks that will keep even damp feet warm. The toolbox talk should cover all of this, and make it clear that each person is responsible for wearing the right stuff in cold environments.
Hot weather toolbox talks
While cold weather brings with it the largest increase of risk, the sweltering summer months also present challenges on a construction site. Places that can reach scorching temperatures in the warm part of the year, like Florida or Arizona, can be risky just for people going about their everyday business—let alone those putting in the physical hard yards on a building site! Construction workers have been shown to be at higher risk of heat stress than others, so it’s a very real problem.
As mentioned above, a hot weather toolbox talk should kick off with a relevant anecdote or example that illustrates to everyone listening exactly why it’s important to take extra protective steps in hot weather. Construction workers have died and continue to die on the job from heat-related causes, so it’s not just a matter of sunburn and slight heatstroke
The following are the major points to cover when discussing safe work in hot weather.
There are two main types of heat disorder that can affect workers. It’s important that everyone is aware of the signs and symptoms so that they can watch out for them, not only in themselves but in all the people around them.
Heatstroke happens when the body fails to regulate its internal temperature through sweating. It can be caused by spending too much time in high temperatures, and notably by physical exerting oneself in the heat. Symptoms include:
- Cessation of sweating
- Dry, hot, and flushed skin
- High temperature
- An altered mental state, specifically confusion and slurred speech
- Nausea and vomiting
- Rapid pulse
If it is suspected that a worker has heatstroke, you should seek emergency medical attention immediately and in the meantime, try to cool them down as much as possible with shade, removal of clothing, and cold water.
Heat exhaustion is the result of fluid loss through excessive sweating and insufficient drinking of water. It can also be caused by a lack of salt intake. Symptoms include:
- Dizziness and headaches
- Excessive sweating
- Nausea and vomiting
Plenty of liquids should be given to the sufferer, and the person removed from the sun to a cool and shaded area. If no quick improvement is seen, medical attention is required.
Avoiding heat stress
The second important point to cover is how heat stress and disorders like those mentioned above can be avoided. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has a handy infographic that includes a lot of the relevant information. Tips include:
- Acclimatize those required to work in high heat, slowly increasing periods of exposure and ensuring that they can handle it.
- Employ a buddy system whereby workers encourage each other to take care of themselves with regular water and breaks and also check each other for heat-related symptoms.
- Give workers frequent breaks, and make sure that they take them. The break area should be sheltered and preferably air-conditioned.
- Wear clothing that is breathable and light-colored.
- Drink at least one cup of
- water every 15-20 minutes.
If workers are aware of and on board with these practices, they can take ownership of keeping themselves and others safe in the heat.
Keeping track of incident reports, policies, training requirements, and other paperwork makes it much easier to ensure everyone stays safe on site—but there’s enough to worry about on a construction site, especially one that’s operating in extreme heat or extreme cold!
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