A prairie winter often brings low temperatures, high winds and lots of snow for Manitobans. For those in the province’s construction industry, these elements not only add challenges to the jobsite, but also serious dangers.
“While winter weather can slow construction or close construction for short periods of time due to storms, both commercial and residential construction activities do not stop during the winter months,” said Ross Jardine, client services advisor at the Construction Safety Association of Manitoba (CSAM), a non-profit organization run by and for Manitoba’s building construction industry.
According to Manitoba’s Workplace Safety and Health Act and Regulation, the onus is on the employer to ensure that hazards in the workplace are identified, communicated and controlled.
“Employers must identify hazards workers are exposed to and implement some form of control to mitigate the hazards,” said Jardine. “When it comes to work in extreme cold, they must also provide training to identify the different types of cold stress, illnesses and injuries, what type of clothing to wear, how to provide first aid treatment and safe job procedures.”
Cold stress can happen when a construction worker working outside in chilly conditions can no longer warm their body – or core temperature – up, causing injuries, permanent tissue damage and even death.
“Hypothermia is a form of cold stress,” said Jardine. “This means your core body temperature drops below 35 degrees Celsius.”
Moderate symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, blue lips and fingers, slow breathing and heart rate, confusion and poor coordination.
Frostbite and frostnip are also indications of cold stress. “Frostbitten skin looks waxy and feels numb,” said Jardine. “Once the tissue becomes hard from frostbite, it’s a medical emergency, and damaged blood vessels and reduced blood flow can lead to gangrene.”
From 2020 to 2021, Jardine says 13 claims related to cold stress injuries in Manitoba were reported to the Workers Compensation Board of Manitoba. However, employers can protect workers from cold stress-related injuries and develop procedures for working in the cold, including extending or adding breaks so workers can get into a warmer space for some relief.
“Supervisors should also receive guidance on when to restrict working in extreme cold,” said Jardine. “As well, employers should provide both supervisors and workers with a list of tasks that can or can’t be performed in extreme cold.”
Jardine says workers should be trained on the appropriate engineering controls, personal protective equipment, and safe work practices and procedures to reduce the risk of cold stress. This training includes wearing the proper clothing, such as gloves, boots and headwear.
“Always have an extra set of dry clothing to change into,” said Jardine. “For example, we recommend changing your socks at break time or having extra gloves that you can rotate throughout the day.
“If your clothing gets wet at two degrees Celsius or colder, change into dry clothes immediately and check for signs of hypothermia.”
He also recommends wearing several layers of clothing with a synthetic base layer to keep sweat away from the skin. “If the worker starts to overheat, they can remove a layer. It’s also best if outer layers are windproof and waterproof.”
It is also critical to avoid tight-fitting clothing – this includes boots and gloves – as it slows down blood flow, which keeps the body warm.
“It’s important for workers to protect their hands, feet, ears and face, but do not wear a toque or hood under a hard hat,” said Jardine. “Workers must wear approved hard hat liners that will strap into the hard hat. You can view the requirements in Manitoba’s Workplace Safety and Health Regulation.”
Staying hydrated and eating high-calorie foods will also help prevent the effects of cold stress. “It’s important to stay hydrated, drink room temperature water, avoid caffeine and eat warm, high-calorie food.”
Jardine says it’s essential to learn the symptoms of cold-induced illnesses and injuries and what to do to help co-workers. “Really, avoid working alone in extreme cold and use the buddy system. When you work in pairs, your partner can recognize the signs of cold stress and take action to help.”
Workers operating in extreme cold conditions should take frequent short breaks in warm, dry shelters if available.
“I have seen employers place trailers onsite for workers to warm up and build temporary hoarding to provide a place out of the wind,” said Jardine. “Companies will also ventilate enclosed spaces with warm air while workers are conducting work.”
It’s also common for employers to restrict working at elevated heights due to windchill factors, as there are generally fewer barriers to block high wind speeds when working outdoors.
“Wind chill is a major hazard for winter construction work,” said Jardine. “For example, when the air temperature is minus 30 degrees Celsius, and there are 16-kilometre per hour winds, your skin can freeze in about a minute. When the air temperature is minus 30 degrees Celsius, and there are 48-kilometre per hour winds, your skin can freeze in 30 seconds.”
Other common winter hazards include slips and trips at entry and exit points, and along pathways and staircases on site.
“It is critical to ensure ice and snow are removed, sanded or salted,” said Jardine. “It’s also important to ensure all cutoffs, wood, steel, aluminum and other refuse is removed from the site exterior, as snow accumulation on these items can cause serious injuries.”
Jardine says it’s best to follow the basic hazard assessment principles: identify, communicate and control.
“Firstly, identify the hazards of working in extreme cold on your jobsite,” he said. “Then communicate those hazards to all affected parties and develop controls, including safe work procedures, to mitigate the identified hazards.”
As a leader in the safety landscape, CSAM can empower companies to protect their staff from winter construction hazards. “Employers should train all affected staff on these procedures and review them on a regular basis.”
CSAM offers a wealth of knowledge on accident prevention methods, changes to health and safety regulations, and guidance on establishing comprehensive safety programs to meet the needs of different companies.
“We also provide an array of consulting services to help you prevent incidents, including injuries related to cold stress,” said Jardine. “We can come directly to your jobsite to help identify hazards, conduct inspections or facilitate customized safety training.”
Jardine says CSAM has two cold stress toolbox talks to help construction employers facilitate jobsite training. To contact CSAM, call 204-775-3171 in Winnipeg or 204-728-3456 in Brandon, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.constructionsafety.ca/consulting-services.
Resources for Working in the Winter
Check your legislated requirements for work in winter weather. In Manitoba, here’s where to look at Workplace Safety and Health (WSH) Regulation:
- WSH Regulation Part 4.12
- WSH Regulation Part 9.3(2)
- WSH Regulation Part 6.10(2)
- (a) and 6.11(2)(a)
- WSH Regulation Part 6.17(1)(d)
- WSH Regulation Part 6.18(1)