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Knowing and Preparing for the Risks of Extreme Cold


When extreme cold hits, some work must wait for a prolonged warm up, as is in the case of brickwork, concrete, and painting. The remaining workers must deal with sub-zero conditions that create special problems, one of the biggest of which is the threat the cold poses to their health. 

U.S. employers are required to follow OSHA’s guidelines, which include the “duty to protect workers from recognized hazards, including cold stress hazards, that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm in the workplace.”

Risk factors for cold stress include:

  • Wetness/dampness, dressing improperly, and exhaustion. 

  • Predisposing health conditions, such as hypertension, hypothyroidism, and diabetes.

  • Poor physical conditioning.

Unprepared workers may end up with trench foot, hypothermia, or frostbite if they do not dress properly for extreme cold or take breaks to warm up. 

Dressing for Extreme Cold

The Canadian site Worker Safety North has suggestions about dressing properly for the cold. Everything begins with proper layering. To effectively keep a body warm, layering should begin with a wicking layer next to the skin which removes moisture that might cool the body, covered by a light insulating layer, such as fleece. Next comes a heavy insulating layer like a wool sweater that traps heat, topped by a windproof and waterproof layer that protects from wind, rain, and snow. 

Your mother was right when she said you lose a lot of heat through the top of your head. 

Your mother was right when she said you lose a lot of heat through the top of your head. Proper dress for cold always includes a hat (preferably one made of wool). Finally, gloves and mittens protect your fingers from frostbite. In some cases, you may want thermal gloves. A wicking sock covered by a wool sock can keep your feet at their warmest. 

Liners in hard hats help retain body heat, treating goggles, treating safety glasses with anti-fog spray improves vision, and adjusting of personal fall arrest systems so they fit over bulky winter clothing are added tips.

Stay Hydrated

It’s important for workers to stay hydrated when they are working in extreme cold, given that their body is burning calories at a rapid rate to stay warm. This means both avoiding alcohol and limiting caffeine. An insulated water bottle can help workers stay hydrated in extreme cold conditions. 

Prepare for Wind Chill

Wind chill can exacerbate cold conditions, and employers can check on this factor with this chart the National Weather Service. To educate and remind workers about the dangers of the cold, employers can print these Fast Facts

Keep Your Site Safe

After a storm, the wise superintendent checks a construction site carefully to make sure it is clear of downed power lines and free of icicles that might fall and cause a slip hazard. It’s also smart to warm up equipment and tools before the work day begins. 

Add a Hotspot

Supervisors can improve conditions in a major way by providing a butane heater in a designated warm-up area. 

Keep Your Grip

Ice cleats can prevent many slips and falls for workers who cross ice or snow throughout their shift. There are a variety of types, and a supervisor may want to try out several to find the best fit for his or her crew’s conditions. 

Other Considerations

Steve Maxwell has recently posted several useful tips for building in extreme cold weather. For one thing, it is important to prevent moist warm air from traveling into the cold cavities of walls and unheated attics where it will remain in liquid form. He also suggests using rigid foam in cold weather, explains the importance of mechanical ventilation and why it is important that a roof remains cold in cold weather. 


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