Protecting Outdoor Workers in Winter Weather

Outdoor workers dressed for winter removing snow.


People who work indoors often envy the outside workers who get to be outside in the sun all day while they are stuck sitting under track, florescent lighting – that is until winter rolls around. When the temperature drops it’s a completely different story, and those who work indoors are more than happy to stay out of the frigid weather. Unfortunately for the outside workforce, the show must go on and the risks and complications from extreme cold, like cold stress, are very real.

Cold stress is a condition in which extremely cold outside temperatures start to draw heat from the body and it can no longer properly warm itself resulting in tissue damage. Common cases of cold stress are hypothermia, frostbite, and trench foot. Many of us who have ever spent a day outside in the snow have had a small taste of frostbite, but can you imagine being at risk almost every single day? That is what the conditions are like for outside workers like firefighters, police officers, construction workers, postal workers, miners, airport baggage handlers, landscapers and utility workers.

Although cold stress is indeed a dangerous threat to all outside workers, wearing proper winter attire can easily keep it at bay. Employers should train workers on how to properly clothe themselves for outside work and also provide some level of protective gear, but here are some simple tips for everyone to keep in mind.

  • Dress in Layers– You should aim for wearing at least 3 layers going from thinnest to thickest with the thinnest layer on the inside. Avoid any layers that are very tight because they eliminate the insulating air that should be able to flow freely between layers. The outermost layer of clothing should be water-proof and wind-resistant but may also require some ventilation to protect the body from overheating.
  • Mind the material– This may come as a surprise but cotton is not an effective material for insulating the body. It absorbs moisture from perspiration and retains it whereas synthetic materials, like polyester, and wool or silk are actually much more efficient at wicking moisture away from the body.
  • Where a hat or a hood– This will keep too much body heat from escaping from your head.
  • Protect your hands and feet– Hands and feet fall by the wayside when the body is working hard to keep major organs at its core as warm as possible. Make sure you wear insulating socks and water-proof footwear as well as protective gloves when working outside.

    One last way to protect yourself from cold stress, and perhaps the most important, is to pay close attention to your body and its reaction to low temperatures. If you feel like you have had too much of the cold, you may need to take a break, get a hot beverage or change your clothes because of moisture. You should also avoid alcohol, certain medications or any substances that could impair your judgment or ability to stay alert for symptoms of cold stress.

    With just a few small precautions outside workers and employers can work together to save themselves from dangerous health risks, painful cold stress symptoms and costly medical expenses this and every winter.


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