The winter season is nearly upon us. While you may consider it the off-season for the construction industry, that doesn’t mean that work grinds entirely to a halt. There are still plenty of tasks that can be carried out or completed during the cold winter months. Low temperatures and icy conditions create their own hazards that you might not encounter during the warmer months of the year. What are the most common winter construction site hazards and how can you avoid them?

1. Cold Stress

The human body can adapt to most situations, but extreme heat or cold can easily be dangerous or even fatal. Working outdoors in the wintertime, especially in areas that experience extreme cold, can put workers at risk for a variety of cold stressors and cold-related injuries such as:

  • Hypothermia — Extended exposure to cold temperatures that cause the body’s core temperature to drop. It can be fatal if left untreated.
  • Chilblains — Painful inflammation of small blood vessels when skin is repeatedly exposed to cold but non-freezing temperatures.
  • Trench foot — Occurs when feet are not kept properly warm and dry, causing them to lose heat faster. In extreme cases, it can cause tissue damage and develop into gangrene.
  • Frostbite — When body parts are exposed to freezing temperatures for extended periods. Incredibly painful and can result in amputation.

There are a few steps you can take to prevent these cold stressors from causing injuries or incidents on your job sites. Start by ensuring that everyone is wearing the proper clothing, from layered shirts and pants to gloves and water-resistant work boots. Make sure that your team has a place that they can go to warm up and encourage them to do so often. Finally, pay close attention to your crew and learn to spot the signs of these various cold stresses.

2. Snow Removal

It’s a lot easier to work through the cold winter months if you’re not trying to navigate through a few feet of snow on the ground. Removing snow is often a challenging task. According to FEMA, a square foot of light, fluffy snow can weigh as little as 3 pounds. However, but it’s packed and topped with ice, that same square foot can weigh up to 57 pounds.

Removing snow by hand could result in back injuries or other repetitive motion issues that could have lasting consequences. Additionally, snow removal is responsible for upwards of 100 deaths every year, according to the National Safety Council.

Make arrangements for removing snow from your job site whenever possible. This might include investing in snowblowers or other similar materials, or treating the site with de-icing chemicals, or even bringing in a professional snow removal service to reduce the risk of injuries.

3. Trenching Hazards

As long as you’re not in a zone where the ground freezes solid every winter, excavation and trenching are still possible. Even in the warmer months, trenching can be dangerous — in fact, the fatality rate for excavation is 112% higher than the rest of the construction industry. That’s saying a lot when you consider that construction is one of the most dangerous industries to work in year-round.

Avoiding trenching hazards isn’t always possible, but you can mitigate the potential for injuries or fatalities by maintaining comprehensive safety measures, regardless of the exterior temperature. A single cubic yard of dirt can weigh as much as your average vehicle. That number can only go up if the dirt is wet or topped with snow and ice.

Trenches deeper than 5 feet need to be secured with a trench box, and according to OSHA standards, anything deeper than 20 feet needs an engineer to design safety protocols to prevent trenching hazards.

4. Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

No one likes to be stuck out in the cold for long periods. It’s tempting to bring all of your equipment and tools indoors while you’re working.  However, for anything that uses gasoline, propane, or diesel as its primary source of fuel, this can be dangerous or even deadly. The carbon monoxide and dioxide that each device emits as part of its exhaust can build up in an enclosed space and become dangerous very quickly.

Any devices that emit exhaust need to be used in a well-ventilated area or outside. There is no exception to this rule. Working outdoors is ideal but that isn’t always possible. In those cases, comprehensive ventilation or even a portable fume hood can keep the air safe and breathable.

5. Slips and Falls

Slip and fall injuries are among the most common in the construction industry. They’re so common, in fact, that they’ve earned a spot among OSHA’s “Fatal Four” — the four injury types responsible for a good portion of workplace deaths in the construction industry. The risk of these injuries climbs when you add ice to the mix.

There are a few steps that you can take to prevent slippery surfaces from causing on-the-job injuries. Take the time to treat frequently trafficked paths and walkways with road salt or other de-icing chemicals. Encourage everyone to take their time while they walk so they can be sure of their footing. You may even want to encourage your crew to wear ice spikes or cleats to improve traction.

6. Winter Driving Accidents

Driving can be dangerous at the best of times. However, when you throw snow, sleet, and ice into the mix, it becomes downright hazardous. A low-speed fender bender becomes a high-speed collision when you try to step on the brakes, hit a patch of ice, and start spinning out of control. Winter driving accidents, both on- and off-site, put everyone at risk.

Winter driving accidents aren’t always avoidable, but there are steps you can take to reduce their frequency and impact. Emphasize safe driving practices. Consider implementing fleet tracking technologies that will give you the tools to identify people that speed or take part in other unsafe driving behaviors.

7. Melting Issues

Winter temperatures often vary, so the snow that’s on the ground one night can completely melt before the next. Snow melts happen periodically throughout the winter season and on construction sites. This occurs especially if excavations are incomplete, or there are large icicles dangling from overhanging edges. There are no official statistics regarding this hazard, but according to OSHA, at least 16 people have died from these hazards over the past 10 years.

Pay close attention to the weather and monitor the temperature at your job site. It sounds simple, but understanding how the temperature is changing can keep you alert and aware of when melting issues might crop up. Don’t attempt to remove icicles or snowdrifts while you’re standing directly beneath them. Also, take any necessary precautions to prevent water from snow and ice melt from building up in trenches or other excavation projects.

Keep Your Job Sites Safe This Winter

Wintertime doesn’t mean your work schedule needs to grind to a halt.  However, you do need to be aware of seasonal construction risks that you might not encounter during the rest of the year. This isn’t an exhaust list, but it does detail some of the most common winter construction site hazards. Stay alert and keep your job site safe this winter.


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