Working in cold environments
What are the hazards?
There is no defined temperature range for exposure, so you must plan and manage the risks based on the type of environment, who is working in those environments and the duration of exposure.
Factors that should be considered include:
|Air temperature||Age||Type of activity|
|Ground temperature||Abilities||Duration of the activity|
|Air movement||Health conditions / medication||Duration of exposure|
What are the harms
Prolonged exposure to extremely cold temperatures can often result in cold stress which includes fatigue and mild to serious health issues such as increased risk of incident/injury, hypothermia frostbite/trench foot and other long-term health effects.
Trench foot and frostbite
Trench foot and frostbite occur when your bodies extremities become wet in low to freezing temperatures. Frostbite usually affects the hands, fingers, toes, feet, ears and nose.
- Symptoms include: pain, swelling, numbness, discoloration (reddened with white patches), hardening and blistering of the skin.
Hypothermia may occur when an individual’s core body temperature decreases when exposed to cold or wet (rain, perspiration) environments.
- Symptoms include: uncontrollable shivering, numbness of hands and feet, slurred speech, dazed and or irrational behaviour such as wanting to take clothing off.
- Advanced symptoms include: unable to stand, pupils become dilated, pulse and breathing slow and loss of consciousness.
Other serious safety risks can become more likely as symptoms, even when mild. These may lead to various incidents as cold muscles are more likely to strain and sprain, and mistakes or incorrect actions may be taken where there is a lack of either mental or physical co-ordination.
Long term effects
The long term effects of working in cold may include arthritis (wear and tear of tissue), rheumatism (damage of tissue from immune response), breathing difficulties (bronchitis) and heart disease due to the strain placed on the heart from changes in blood circulation.
Working in extreme cold environments increases risk to worker’s health and safety. Where practical, consider the following solutions when working in extreme cold working environments:
Schedule the work to the conditions
- Consider whether outside work can be delayed or completed at a warmer part of the year.
- Give new workers a period of acclimatisation (gradual increase of time working in extreme cold conditions).
- Adjust the pace of work to reduce over heating which can lead to sweating.
Train workers to the conditions
- Ensure workers are trained to recognise symptoms of hypothermia in themselves and others.
- Ensure workers are trained in safe work practices, re-warming procedures, proper clothing practices, proper eating and drinking habits.
- Regular food and fluid intake is encouraged – warm/hot drinks are best for warming up the body.
- Coffee and alcohol are to be avoided as they lead to dehydration and lower the body’s heat from the blood flow to skin surface and impairs the body’s ability to regulate heat.
Create safe systems
- Ensure constant observation by supervisor or buddy system.
- Arrange work tasks to prevent sitting and standing for long periods of time.
- Make provision for workers to keep their body moving to keep warm and limbs awake.
- Implement job rotations and regular rest breaks.
- Have regular communication protocols in place for remote or isolated workers and ensure the communication methods are appropriate for the environment they are working in.
Provide appropriate equipment
- Provide protection such as a hut or the cabin of a vehicle.
- Provide heating in cabs and warm break out/rest rooms.
- Provide drying rooms and cleaning services for protective clothing.
Provide Personal Protective Clothing
- Ensure workers are provided with warm, waterproof clothing.
- Where workers move between different temperatures or become hot and sweating due to physical activity they should have a spare change of protective clothing due to the build-up of water in the clothing.
When working in cold working environments clothing should be layered to adjust to changing environmental temperatures. We recommended a three-layer approach:
- inner layer - ventilating (wool, silk or synthetic to keep moisture away from the body)
- middle layer - insulating (wool or synthetic provide insulation even when wet). The level of insulation will depend on the temperature within the environment and work being undertaken.
- outer layer - protective (waterproof/windbreak, provides some ventilation to prevent over heating).
Reflective or fluorescent panels
Reflective or fluorescent panels are needed when working in high traffic areas and should form part of the design of the clothing, rather than a separate vest which may catch on equipment.
Footwear is very important as feet are one of the likely parts of the body to be affected by the cold. Like clothing, when selecting footwear appropriate Insulation, size, water resistance, ventilation, anti-slip soles and impact resistance, must be taken into consideration based on the temperature of the environment and tasks being performed.
Like feet, hands are the most likely body part to be affected by cold temperatures. When selecting gloves or mittens, consideration must be given to the most appropriate product for the temperature or the tasks being performed within the environments such as insulation level, size and flexibility and dexterity.
A lot of heat is lost through the head. Factors to consider when selecting the most suitable head gear for the working environment include:
- head coverings must extend protection to the neck and ears and can be the combination of a woollen beanie and a hood from an outer layer jacket
- head coverings must not interfere with other types of protective equipment such as hearing protection or safety glasses.
More information on hazards
Other hazards to consider include:
- Hazardous Manual Tasks - working in cold environments can lower body and hand temperature making handling and gripping objects more difficult, increases the risk of hand-arm vibration and grip force leading to a decrease in blood flow to muscles, increasing fatigue and increases the risk of MSD.
- Isolation – changes in the body can occur very quickly, it is essential that constant supervision is in place or a buddy system implemented.
- Lighting – can be compromised in both indoor and outdoor cold temperatures. The selected lighting is to be appropriate for the task and allow safe movement around the workplace and to allow workers to perform their job without having to adopt awkward postures or strain their eyes to see.
- Noise – is PPE available and appropriate for the environment without introducing additional risk, such as can instructions be heard over the constant noise of refrigeration and or other mechanical equipment being used. Have mechanical equipment devices and tools been routinely serviced and maintained to ensure they work without causing excess noise?
- Slip trip and falls – may occur from a build-up of ice/water/condensation from changes in temperatures outside and between different work areas within indoor workspaces.
- Entrapment – may occur in cool rooms or freezers. Doors (entrance/egress) must prevent people being stuck or trapped. Regular communication should be kept with workers entering cold environments.
- Hazardous atmospheres /ventilation - cool rooms or freezers have poor ventilation, leading to a risk of build-up of fumes from use of forklifts or ammonia if there is a leak in refrigeration units. Appropriate equipment, detection and ventilation systems should be in place and regularly serviced and maintained in accordance with manufacturers’ instructions.
Technical help and resources
Codes of Practice and Guidance
For more information about the risk management process, see Code of Practice for How to Manage Work Health and Safety Risks
For more information about the work place facilities, see Safe Work Australia's Code of Practice for Managing the work environment and Facilities
Check out BOM for weather warnings and forecasts where you are working.
SafeWork NSW guidance and resources
- Easy to do Work Health and Safety: a small business interactive tool kit
- SafeWork NSW - Provision of information, training and instruction
- SafeWork NSW - First Aid
- SafeWork NSW - Emergency management
- SafeWork NSW - Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
- SafeWork NSW - Confined Space
- SafeWork NSW – Remote or isolated work