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Working in cold weather

While it’s not an issue for much of Queensland, many parts of the state’s south drop below freezing in winter. This means that, just as for hot weather, environmental conditions and the health and safety of workers must be monitored when their work involves prolonged or repeated exposure to cold conditions.

In winter, farm activities such as feeding livestock, breaking ice in the water trough, cutting wood or loading stored grain can be increasingly difficult. However, it is important to distinguish between a condition that threatens health and safety, and a feeling of discomfort. The risk to workers increases as conditions move further away from those generally accepted as comfortable. Hypothermia arises when a person gets an abnormally low body temperature as a result of exposure to cold environments.

Both personal and environmental factors should be considered when assessing the risk to workers’ health from working in a cold environment. Personal factors can include the use of some prescription medication, age, health, the level of physical activity, while environmental factors include air temperature, humidity, and wind.

In circumstances where the work involves prolonged or repeated exposure to cold, the duty to provide information, training and instruction to workers includes training workers to recognise the early symptoms of hypothermia in themselves and others, how to follow safe work procedures and to report problems immediately.

Optimum comfort for sedentary work is between 20 and 26 degrees Celsius, depending on the time of year and clothing worn. If it is not possible to eliminate exposure to extreme cold, the risks must be minimised by providing localised heating and protection from wind and rain, such as a hut or the cabin of a vehicle.

The following control measures should also be considered but are least effective if used on their own:

  • Provide protection through warm, and if necessary, waterproof clothing.
  • Provide opportunities for workers who are not used to working in cold conditions to acclimatise, for example job rotation and regular rest breaks.
  • Ensure workers are trained about the hazards of working in cold conditions and how to recognise and act on symptoms of hypothermia.

Immediate medical assistance for hypothermia should be provided if a worker has:

  • numbness in hands or fingers
  • uncontrolled shivering
  • loss of fine motor skills, particularly in hands—workers may have trouble with buttons, laces, zips
  • slurred speech and difficulty thinking clearly
  • irrational behaviour—such as a person discarding clothing.

Further information

Read more in the Managing the work environment and facilities code of practice (PDF, 0.57 MB).