Working in Cold Environments
What precautions should I take to safeguard employees working in cold environments?
Working in cold environments fairly obviously presents very different hazards to those encountered in the ‘normal’ workplace, the most obvious of which are frostbite and hypothermia. Perhaps the most significant issue is that of maintaining body temperature within normal tolerances whilst preserving sufficient manual dexterity and general body movement to allow the work task to be completed safely. However care should also be taken with regard to hazards which may be less obvious such as slips caused by ice build-up and the risk of entrapment within cold rooms – there should be an easily operable and highly visible door release mechanism that is insulated from the cold area and thus protected from the risk of malfunction due to the build up of ice.
Legislative requirements are scant in this area. The Workplace Regulations state that ‘In such cases the temperature should be as close to 13 or 16 degrees C as practical’. The PPE Regulations state that relevant equipment should be suitable and adequate. (It is the employer’s duty to supply all such protective clothing, which should be maintained in good condition.) As ever, the general requirement to carry out a risk assessment is of basic importance. The start point to this should be to determine whether there is an alternative to the need for employees to work in extremes of temperature.
Where processes depend on maintaining rigid temperature control, reasonable guidance is given in the British Standard BS 7915: 1998. This document relates to the design of operational controls and safe working practices for working in cold indoor environments. It describes a number of different scenarios in which a selection of tasks and clothing combinations are considered.
Factors such as wind speed, temperature levels, exposure times, amount of physical activity and humidity levels all contribute to an individual’s metabolic rate and in turn the effect of cold on the body. It therefore follows that assessing such factors enables the type and quantity of clothing insulation required for specific tasks to be determined. Particular attention should be paid to the extremities – head, fingers and feet – due to the potential reduction in blood flow resulting from the contraction of blood vessels.
The correct choice of clothing is crucial as available fabrics vary significantly as do insulation properties. Several layers of man-made fibres tend to be more efficient than natural materials. The effect of ‘wicking’ (perspiration away from the body) compounds this. More effective wicking minimises chill factor and once more synthetic fibres such as polypropylene and more effective that cotton.
The planning and organisation of work activities should receive due consideration. Breaks from the cold environment should enable the temperature of the resting body to be re-established at the normal core body temperature.
Less physically taxing activities should take place earlier in the working period with tasks demanding higher levels of exertion occurring immediately before a break or the end of the work period. This will reduce the risk of excessive heat loss.