Working in cold weather or cold environments
While it’s not an issue for much of Queensland, many parts of the southwest drop below freezing in winter. This means, just the same as when the state gets hot, environmental conditions and the health and safety of workers must be monitored if they are exposed to the cold for prolonged or repeated periods.
In winter, farm activities such as feeding livestock, breaking ice in the water trough, cutting wood or loading stored grain can be increasingly difficult and present more risks when workers are cold. These risks may also be present during prolonged work in cold rooms and other cold environments – not just cold weather.
It is important to distinguish between a safety risk, and discomfort. Hypothermia arises when a person gets an abnormally low body temperature from a cold environment, worsened with windy and wet conditions. You don’t have to be in sub zero temperatures to risk hypothermia – it only requires the environmental temperature to be less than the body temperature.
Personal and environmental factors affect the risk to workers. Personal factors can include prescription medication, age, health, the level of physical activity, while environmental factors include air temperature, humidity, and wind. Aim to eliminate exposure to the cold or the need to work in cold weather. If this isn’t possible, the risks must be minimised by providing heating and protection from the elements, such as a hut or the cabin of a vehicle.
Planning ahead helps:
- Monitor weather forecast for conditions that may increase risk of hypothermia.
- Consider if the work be done inside, remotely, or in a heated cab of a vehicle, and if time in the cold can be shortened (or work done in warmer times).
- Schedule warm-up breaks for outdoor workers and hold recess and breaks inside.
Control measures should also be considered (but not solely relied on):
- Provide protection through warm and waterproof clothing and dress in layers.
- Keep workers dry, but if they become wet, change immediately into dry clothes.
- Provide opportunities for workers not used to working in cold conditions to acclimatise, for example job rotation and regular rest breaks.
In circumstances requiring prolonged or repeated exposure to cold, ensure workers are provided with training and instruction about the risks, what measures can reduce these risks, and how to recognise and act on the early symptoms of hypothermia. Workers need to inform others when going out to work in cold conditions and report problems immediately.
Medical aid should be given when there are signs of hypothermia, including numbness in hands or fingers; uncontrolled shivering or slurred speech and difficulty thinking clearly; loss of fine motor skills, particularly in hands, and irrational behaviour—such as discarding clothing.
Other hazards associated with working in cold weather or cold rooms include the risk of slipping on icy walking surfaces, the extra muscular effort required to perform tasks, and reduced strength of grip when wearing gloves.