Preparing Workers for Winter Weather

Companies should have a cold weather program that protects their workers.

By Alexandra Walsh

Outdoor work such as water well drilling requires proper preparation, especially in those parts of the country that experience severe winter weather conditions.

Being unprepared for working in cold, windy, and wet conditions can cause cold stress in workers. Cold stress refers to cold-related illnesses that happen when the body can no longer maintain its normal temperature. Cold stress illnesses include the likes of hypothermia, frostbite, trench foot, and chilblains.

To assure worker safety, employers should have cold weather health and safety programs in place to make sure their workers are prepared for the cold in advance.

Employer Responsibility

Although OSHA does not have a specific standard that covers working in cold environments, employers have a responsibility to provide workers with employment and a place of employment that are free from recognized hazards.

It follows that would include hazards related to winter weather “that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees.” (Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970)

Employers should therefore train workers on the hazards related to the job and safety measures to use, such as engineering controls and safe work practices, that will protect workers’ safety and health.

Training Supervisors and Workers

A trained team is a prepared and safe team. Train supervisors and crew leaders to understand both temperature and wind chill need to be considered together when employees will be outdoors. The National Weather Service, OSHA, and other national organizations publish temperature and wind chill charts with recommended time limits to help keep anyone who will be outdoors safe.

Scheduling outdoor work for the warmest part of the day, using these time limits, and requiring the use of the buddy system will all minimize the chance for cold-related injuries.

Preparing employees for cold weather includes acclimating and getting used to the cold, which should begin in early fall. Also helpful would be to offer training on proper nutrition. Workers who are well hydrated and who avoid caffeinated or alcoholic beverages and nicotine will be less prone to dehydration and cold stress.

Employee training should also include stretching exercises and specific information to help them stay safe such as the need to stay dry and take frequent breaks to warm themselves. Teaching those working outside how to recognize signs of cold stress in themselves and their coworkers, as well as basic first-aid skills, can prevent more serious injuries.

For employees who will be driving company vehicles, develop procedures to help ensure vehicles are prepared for the day—clearing off ice and snow; filling windshield washing fluid; keeping the gas tank at least half full; and packing shovels, rock salt, emergency blankets, and road flares. Workers should also be reminded how to exit their vehicles properly to minimize the chance of injury from slipping or falling.

Employers should also train workers on:

  • Cold stress:
    -How to recognize its symptoms and prevent cold stress injuries and illnesses
    -The importance of self-monitoring and monitoring coworkers for symptoms
    -First aid and how to call for additional medical assistance in an emergency
    -How to select proper clothing for cold, wet, and windy conditions.
  • Other winter weather hazards workers may be exposed to such as slippery roads and surfaces, windy conditions, and downed power lines:
    -How to recognize these hazards
    -How workers can be protected with engineering controls, safe work practices, and proper selection of personal protective equipment.

Engineering Controls

Because cold weather can neither be eliminated nor substituted with warm weather, the next possible way to prepare for cold weather hazards is with engineering controls. Any device that helps shield workers from the cold or helps them restore their body temperature should be considered.

One of the simplest engineering controls is wrapping the handles of metal tools to insulate them so that employees aren’t grasping cold handles. Another low-cost engineering control is to use plastic sheeting or tarps to help shield workers from drafts and cold winds.

When outdoor work is expected to take a long time, employees will need to take warming breaks. Provide mobile warming shelters or designate areas with radiant heaters to restore core body temperatures. These shelters can also be a place for providing warm beverages.

Providing warm portable toilets in addition to shelters or heaters is also an engineering control that encourages employees to stay hydrated. When faced with the reality of a chilly trek to a cold toilet, some workers will forgo drinking a sufficient amount of liquids, allowing themselves to become dehydrated.

Engineering controls such as warming shelters and radiant heaters are especially important for employees who are not fully acclimated to working in cold weather. Even for workers who have lived in a cold weather region for years, the first few weeks of cold weather still take some time getting used to.

Protective Clothing for Warmth

In preparing for cold weather, the most visible form of protection and the last line of defense against the cold is warm, dry clothing. Dressing in loose layers helps keep the body’s core warm and promote blood flow. Layers also allow workers to remove some clothing if they become too warm.

Body extremities—head, hands, and feet—also need to be covered because they are the first areas to become chilled.

OSHA does not require employers to provide winter clothing [29 CFR 1910.132(h)(4)(iii)] but if employees are required to provide their own to protect them from cold hazards, employers must ensure it is adequate, properly maintained, and sanitary [29 CFR 1910.132(b)].

When cold environments or temperatures cannot be avoided, the following will protect workers from the cold:

  • Wear at least three layers of loose-fitting clothing. Layering provides better insulation.
    -Consider an inner layer of wool, silk, or synthetic (polypropylene) to keep moisture away from the body. Thermal wear, wool, silk, or polypropylene inner layers of clothing will hold more body heat than cotton.
    -A middle layer of wool or synthetic provides insulation even when wet.
    -Outer wind and rain protection layers allow some ventilation to prevent overheating.
  • Tight clothing reduces blood circulation. Warm blood needs to be circulated to the extremities.
  • Wear an insulated coat/jacket (water-resistant if necessary).
  • Wear a knit mask to cover the face and mouth (if needed).
  • Wear a hat that will cover ears as well. A hat will help keep the whole body warmer. Hats reduce the amount of body heat that escapes from the head.
  • Wear insulated gloves (water-resistant if necessary) to protect the hands.
  • Wear insulated and waterproof boots to protect the feet.


Preparing ahead of time to work in cold weather conditions requires both employers and employees to be aware of the specific hazards that cold weather adds to their job duties.

It also requires a coordinated effort to make working conditions as tolerable as possible. Preparing in advance before the arrival of winter weather will help eliminate and minimize hazards to reduce risk and the potential for injuries to employees working in cold weather.

Alexandra Walsh is the vice president of Association Vision, a Washington, D.C.–area communications company. She has extensive experience in management positions with a range of organizations.