Working outdoors on a construction site during the winter can be a dangerous proposition for any construction worker, unless certain steps have been taken to protect the worker from the winter elements.  While traditionally contractors have focused on the protection of materials during winter construction operations, there is now more focus on protecting the workers.  Winter protection of workers is focused around proper clothing, proper nutrition and hydration, as well as observing co-workers for signs of hypothermia and frostbite.

Wearing the proper clothing when working outdoors is critical to staying dry and maintaining critical core body temperature.   The key is to dress in layers, with the first layer closest to the skin being made of a man made material, such as polypropylene, which allows body moisture to be wicked away from the skin.  The second layer is a heavier insulating layer, while the final layer serves as a windbreaker to prevent cold air from penetrating the inner two layers.  In some cases workers may want to add an additional layer as well, but it is critical that the layers not be too thick to promote sweating, while the worker is active.

In addition, to the core of the body, it is critical that the worker wear a hat of some type, as up to 50% of a person’s body heat is lost thru an uncovered head.  There are several options available that will work in conjunction with the worker’s hardhat.  In addition, the worker should wear the appropriate footwear, as well as moisture wicking socks, which will keep the feet dry.  Finally the hands should be protected with appropriate gloves, which will allow the worker to use tools while protecting their skin from exposure.

Proper nutrition and hydration are necessary to protect workers during winter conditions.  The body burns a lot of calories as it tries to keep warm, so it is critical that the body be fed regularly.  In most cases smaller meals or snacks are preferable to larger heavier meals.  During the winter up to 50% of the worker’s food intake should be in the form of carbohydrates such as bread, pasta and cheese.  Up to four liters of fluids should be consumed per day to keep the body hydrated, but it is important to keep in mind that caffeine drinks should be avoided, because they can interfere with the body’ efforts to keep warm.

 All workers should also be trained in the symptoms of hypothermia, which include shivering, lack of concentration, slurred speech, confusion and poor decision-making abilities.  Once a worker is observed with any of these symptoms, it is critical that the person receive prompt treatment, as hypothermia can be a life-threatening event.  Another area that workers should be trained on is the signs and symptoms of frostbite, which include numbness, red, white, bluish-white or grayish-yellow skin.  Once these symptoms are observed it is critical that the person receive prompt medical attention to deal with the frozen area. 

 Working in winter conditions can be safe and productive, provided the worker is trained in the importance of proper clothing, nutrition and hydration, as well as the symptoms of hypothermia and frostbite.