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Working in the Cold: Take out the Stress

For Laborers who work outdoors in communities where Alberta Clippers and Nor’easters dominate, cold weather is of particular concern this time of year. We addressed the importance of dressing in layers to protect against hypothermia and other manifestations of cold stress in December (see Dressing for Winter Means Bundling Up),but other precautions are also necessary.

Be Safe When Shoveling Snow

Shoveling snow can lead to strained backs, broken bones and heart attacks. Snow blowing can lead to amputations. Remove snow safely.


  • Push snow. If you must lift, use leg muscles for support, not your back.
  • Don’t throw snow over your shoulder or to the side. The twisting stresses the back.
  • Shovel early and often. The sooner you shovel, the less you have to deal with frozen snow.
  • Use the proper equipment; from a snow shovel (not a garden one) to slip-resistant boots.
  • Take frequent breaks.
  • Limit snow-shoveling sessions to no more than 30-60 minutes at a time.

Snow blowing:

  • Read the instruction manual.
  • Never stick your hands or feet in the snow blower. Stop the engine and use a solid object to clear the chute.
  • Never leave the snow blower unattended.
  • Add fuel before starting the snow blower.

Alternate description

LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman
Noel C. Borck

Noting a fact that is often not well-appreciated, the LHSFNA’s Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck says, “The risk of skin cancer still exists despite winter’s falling temperatures. Outdoor workers must take the same precautions as they would in the summer. Other adaptations and precautions can help ensure safety while facilitating production, even in winter.”

Skin Cancer

Sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 should be worn year round along with lip balm with at least an SFP 15 to try and prevent lips from chapping and burning. These are as essential in cold weather as when it is warm.

Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays, of which sunlight is the main source, is responsible for most cases of skin cancer. In the United States, more than two million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed annually(see LIFELINES, May 2011 ). Melanoma, the most deadly form, has seen a marked increase over the last thirty years. Last year, more than 8,000 Americans died from melanoma. Winter exposures contribute to these tragedies.

Working in the Cold

Winter brings other risks as well. Cold restricts blood flow to the muscles, which can be a factor in musculoskeletal injuries (MSIs) like tendonitis. Problems caused by exertion, repetitive motions, vibrations and awkward positions can be aggravated by cold weather. The change in temperature – any temperature change for that matter – can cause arthritis flare-ups

Many of these issues can be dealt with when employers implement specific measures at construction sites to address the weather. As cold is a prominent and widespread problem in Canada, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) suggests using equipment designed to accommodate it as well as the following safe work practices:

  • Metal handles and bars should be covered with thermal insulating material and machines and tools should be designed to be operated without removing mittens or gloves.
  • Outdoor workplaces should have thermometers and anemometers that should be monitored at least every four hours.
  • Heated warming shelters like tents, cabins or rest rooms should be available for continuous work in below-freezing temperatures. Proper rest periods should be allowed and employees should change into dry clothes if tasks have caused them to sweat or to get wet.
  • Procedures for providing first aid and obtaining medical care should be clearly outlined. At least one trained person per shift should be assigned to attend to any emergencies.
  • Workers and supervisors should be informed about proper clothing habits, safe work practices, physical fitness requirements, the symptoms of overexposures to the cold and emergency procedures in case of cold injury. A buddy system should be used.

“These measures are not difficult to put in place,” says Borck, “and, in combination with proper clothing, they can help ensure that work days in the cold end like any other day on the job: safely.”

The LHSFNA also has a health alert – Cold Stress in Construction – and a training manual – Cold Stress Education for Laborers – that are available through the Fund’s online catalogue.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

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