Stay Safe and Warm with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
With the arrival of a new, colder season, it’s a good time to stop and evaluate the safety measures put in place for dealing with weather-related hazards in the workplace. Employers should take steps to mitigate hazards like ice, exposure to cold temperatures and low-light conditions. In many cases, special personal protective equipment (PPE) for cold weather will also be necessary.
Consider what types of PPE will be needed for workers at your facility and then take the opportunity to make this protective gear a topic of discussion at your next safety meeting.
Types of Winter PPE
When it gets cold, everyone has a tendency to put on the heaviest clothing available to stay warm. While heavy clothing is sometimes necessary, selecting clothing and other PPE that is suitable for the tasks being performed is the most important thing to do. These types of PPE may be useful for your employees who work in cold, wet or windy environments.
Wearing multiple layers of clothing can actually keep a person warmer than one heavy layer. This is because the air trapped between the layers acts as an insulator.
When putting on layers, employees shouldn’t use just any type of clothing. Wool or synthetic materials are best, as these can wick away moisture and help retain body heat even when wet. Cotton, on the other hand, can get soaked with sweat and make the wearer colder. These layers should also not be too tight, as tight clothing can restrict movements and decrease the insulating effect of the layers.
Coats and Jackets
In very cold environments, insulated coats or jackets are often necessary as a top layer. In other cases, a top layer that is water-resistant, waterproof or wind-resistant will be a better option. Keep in mind that once a person gets wet, her or she will begin to feel cold and uncomfortable, so fabric matters.
Depending on the type of work being performed, waterproof or insulated boots may be needed. Workers who will be standing in slush, for example, will require footwear made from waterproof materials. For other workers, boots with rubber bottoms and leather tops might be the best option because the leather still allows perspiration to evaporate.
Footwear must also be large enough to comfortably fit two pairs of thin socks or one pair of thick socks. If boots are too tight, blood flow could be restricted.
Additionally, if workers will be working on icy surfaces, attachments for shoes that add traction might be very useful.
Gloves and Mittens
Gloves and mittens can reduce dexterity, but in cold work environments, employees will often need this hand protection. Opt for insulated gloves when temperatures approach freezing. When temperatures approach zero (Fahrenheit), have workers wear mittens, which can keep the fingers warmer.
According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), about 50 percent of body heat is lost through the head. For workers who don’t need to wear additional head protection like hard hats, a wool hat that covers the ears will help retain heat. For those who do need to wear hard hats on the job, winter hardhat liners are a good idea.
In very cold situations, workers may also want to wear knit masks that cover the face.
Having glasses fog up when you’re trying to perform a task isn’t only annoying; it can also be dangerous. CCOHS explains that breathing in cold weather can cause PPE like goggles and safety glasses to fog or frost, so when possible, this protection should be separated from the nose and mouth.
The sun can also create hazards by reflecting off snowy, white environments, so in these situations, workers may need eyewear that provides UV and glare protection, too.
Safety Standards Can Help with Decision Making
OSHA requires that employers provide protective equipment in the workplace, but its standards do not go into great detail about PPE for cold weather. OSHA does not technically require companies to purchase “ordinary” clothing, boots and other common items that people would wear to work. This doesn’t mean employers shouldn’t provide special winter clothing or make recommendations for workers, though.
The American National Standards Institute does have a standard about winter clothing that can help employers and workers determine what purchases to make. ANSI/ISEA 201-2012, the American National Standard for Classification of Insulating Apparel Use in Cold Work Environments, establishes classifications for insulating clothing. These classifications are listed on product labels and indicate how well the item will inhibit heat loss.
Consult ANSI if you feel that this standard would help you make more informed purchases.
Tips for Workers Wearing Winter PPE
Employers should make sure employees understand the different types of clothing and PPE that will help protect them during the winter months, but workers should also keep these tips in mind while on the job:
- If you get warm, unzip your coat or jacket, but don’t remove your hat and gloves.
- Keep your ears covered to help prevent discomfort and heat loss.
- Bring dry clothes to work so you can change if your clothing gets wet.
- Be sure to wear regular PPE in addition to cold weather PPE. For example, wear your safety vest over your winter layers to alert vehicles to your presence.
- If possible, take breaks in heated areas. Overexertion can cause excessive sweating, which can lead to wet, cold clothing.
- Winter layers can be bulky, but don’t wear loose clothing that could get caught in machinery.
Both employees and employers should keep in mind that cold stress is a real thing. Workers can experience hypothermia, frostbite and other cold-related illnesses, so everyone should be alert to these dangers and keep an eye on each other. New workers will need to acclimate to working in the cold. Everyone should try to drink warm fluids to stay warm, but avoid alcohol and caffeine.
It’s better to prepare for the cold ahead of time than to deal with injuries and illnesses later, so make the approaching winter a safety topic in your workplace.
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