- OSHA does not have a standard specific to winter weather, but its mantra when it comes to protecting employees from the hazards of cold weather conditions is “Plan. Equip. Train.”
- OSHA provides several publications that employers may use when preparing for cold weather.
- Employers may want to consider several elements when preparing their workplaces and employees for cold weather conditions: a written winter weather protection plan, hazard assessment, PPE, engineering controls, administrative controls/safety practices, and training.
While OSHA does not have a standard specific to winter weather, the agency can still cite employers under the catchall General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which requires that an employer provide each employee “a place of employment which [is] free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”
Without a standard, how are employers to implement policies and protections that will satisfy OSHA’s expectations related to winter weather? OSHA’s mantra for protecting employees from winter weather is “Plan. Equip. Train.” Drawing from the framework outlined in OSHA’s National Emphasis Program – Outdoor and Indoor Heat-Related Hazards, an employer could consider the following elements to meet OSHA’s expectations regarding winter weather:
- A written winter weather protection plan
- Hazard assessment
- Personal protective equipment (PPE)
- Engineering controls
- Administrative controls / safety practices
OSHA’s Winter Weather preparedness publication and Cold Stress Guide, and its OSHA Quick Card: Protecting Workers from Cold Stress, as well as the agency’s website, can be sourced for guidance.
Winter Weather Protection Plan
Consider establishing a weather condition threshold that triggers the winter weather plan. When establishing the threshold, an employer might consider:
- Hypothermia. Hypothermia deaths can occur at temperatures as high as 50 degrees.
- Wind chill. Wind chill is the “feels like” temperature for warm-blooded mammals. While wind child won’t freeze water, it can definitely injure humans, including damaging tissue and leading to other cold weather injuries. For example, a temperature of 40 degrees combined with a wind speed of 25 miles per hour results in a wind chill temperature of 29 degrees.
- Precipitation. Employees who work in the weather and are exposed to moisture experience greater impact from both the actual temperature and wind chill.
Assessment of Hazards Specific to the Work
Employers might also want to include in their plans an assessment of the winter weather hazards that can arise in the work environment based on the specific job duties of each employee. Outdoor work necessarily involves exposure to the elements. Employees working indoors in non-climate-controlled facilities face exposure risks if working near open entrances that are not shielded against cold temperatures and wind. Snow and ice present especially dangerous hazards. Delivery drivers and commuting employees face hazardous driving conditions that can lead to accidents or being ice- or snowbound in a vehicle. Almost all employees face slip and fall injuries simply walking from a parking lot to the entrance.
OSHA’s guidance recommends the wearing of several layers of loose clothing with water and wind-resistant outerwear; waterproof, insulated boots with good traction; and head (winter liners for hard hats), face, and ear protection as appropriate PPE. Unlike other PPE requirements, there is no OSHA requirement for employers to provide employees with ordinary clothing or other items used solely for protection from winter weather. (29 C.F.R. 1910.132(h)(4)). Regardless, employers may do so voluntarily, or they may require employees to provide and wear their own. If an employee’s work requires specialized safety apparel, OSHA standards require employers to provide winter weather versions of the apparel.
Biometric meters that measure core body temperature and other vital signs have proven a strong safeguard with respect to heat illnesses. These meters can also be used to detect drops in core body temperature, an early symptom of hypothermia. Pocket warmers, ice scrapers, ice cleats, and warming blankets are other examples of PPE that may be appropriate in vehicles.
At the heart of engineering controls for cold weather is a means for employees to get out of the cold for periods of time. For outdoor workers, employers may want to consider creating mobile warming stations or identifying close indoor locations, such as convenience stores, for mobile field or delivery employees. Shielding work areas from wind is another strong protection. A reliable means of communication between supervisors and workers, and work crews to dispatchers or management, is also a critical means through which supervisors can evaluate the health and safety of their crews.
For indoor facilities without climate controls, OSHA suggests radiant heaters at workstations as a possible control. Moving work away from exterior doors and limiting nonemergency use of some exterior doors can prevent exposure. For doors that must remain open or be opened frequently, wind shields at those doors can effectively reduce exposure.
For all facilities, the use of deicing products and placement of traction mats, grating, or ice plates in parking lots, exterior walkways, and immediately outside and inside entrances/exits can protect against slip and fall injuries.
Vehicle use during severe winter weather carries many hazards. Employers may want to evaluate several possible measures to mitigate against such exposures:
- Conducting daily maintenance checks on the brakes, heating systems, electrical systems, engines, exhaust, tires, windshield wipers, and fluids (oil, antifreeze and deicing for windshield) of work vehicles
- Maintaining warm clothes or blankets or other warming devices in company vehicles (i.e., in the event of a crash or if a vehicle becomes stranded in a location where first-responder help is not immediately available)
- Maintaining a communication device in each vehicle so that an employee can call for needed assistance
Administrative Controls and Safety Practices to Consider
Employers may want to consider implementing the following administrative controls and safety practices:
- Monitoring weather during the course of work shifts
- Periodically checking in with employees to monitor for symptoms of cold stress and their proper use of PPE
- Allowing employees to take more frequent breaks as the wind chill temperature drops
- Providing readily accessible hydration, including warm sweetened beverages, and snacks.
- Scheduling jobs that expose workers to cold weather in the warmer part of the day
- Using relief workers to reduce exposure times
OSHA states in its materials that “[a]t a minimum” employers should train employees regarding the causes of cold-stress, how to “prevent cold stress injuries and illnesses,” “[t]he importance of self-monitoring and monitoring coworkers for symptoms,” first aid for cold-stress illnesses and injuries, and “how to call for additional medical assistance in an emergency.” Although not mentioned, training that includes instruction on the employer’s winter weather protection plan is most effective.
With or without a standard, the goal is to maintain the safety and health of employees who will be exposed to severe winter weather. OSHA provides employers with excellent guidance on how to achieve this goal. The watchwords are assess and prepare.
Ogletree Deakins’ Workplace Safety and Health Practice Group will continue to monitor developments and will publish updates on the Workplace Safety and Health blog as additional information becomes available.
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