Safety warning for outdoor workers and cold temperature extremes

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Thursday, 11 August, 2022 - 12:30
Industry news

Workplace Health and Safety Queensland recently encouraged workers and employers in certain parts of the state to take steps to reduce risks associated with temperature extremes.

Southwest Queensland, for example, often experiences temperatures that are below freezing in winter.

As such, the regulator said environmental conditions and the health and safety of workers must be monitored if they are exposed to the cold for prolonged or repeated periods.

In winter, farm activities such as feeding livestock, breaking ice in the water trough, cutting wood or loading stored grain can be increasingly difficult and present more risks when workers are cold.

These risks may also be present during prolonged work in cold rooms and other cold environments – not just cold weather.

It is important to distinguish between a safety risk, and discomfort. Hypothermia arises when a person gets an abnormally low body temperature from a cold environment, worsened by windy and wet conditions.

“You don’t have to be in sub-zero temperatures to risk hypothermia – it only requires the environmental temperature to be less than the body temperature,” the regulator said.

Personal and environmental factors affect the risk to workers. Personal factors can include prescription medication, age, health, and the level of physical activity, while environmental factors include air temperature, humidity, and wind.

“Aim to eliminate exposure to the cold or the need to work in cold weather. If this isn’t possible, the risks must be minimised by providing heating and protection from the elements, such as a hut or the cabin of a vehicle,” said the regulator, which noted that planning ahead helps through:

  • Monitoring weather forecast for conditions that may increase the risk of hypothermia.
  • Considering if the work is done inside, remotely, or in a heated cab of a vehicle and if time in the cold can be shortened (or work done in warmer times).
  • Scheduling warm-up breaks for outdoor workers and holding recess and breaks inside.

Further, control measures should also be considered (but not solely relied on):

  • Provide protection through warm and waterproof clothing and dress in layers.
  • Keep workers dry, but if they become wet, change immediately into dry clothes.
  • Provide opportunities for workers not used to working in cold conditions to acclimatise, for example, job rotation and regular rest breaks.

In circumstances requiring prolonged or repeated exposure to cold, ensure workers are provided with training and instruction about the risks, what measures can reduce these risks, and how to recognise and act on the early symptoms of hypothermia.

Workers need to inform others when going out to work in cold conditions and report problems immediately.

Medical aid should be given when there are signs of hypothermia, including numbness in hands or fingers; uncontrolled shivering or slurred speech and difficulty thinking clearly; loss of fine motor skills, particularly in hands, and irrational behaviour – such as discarding clothing.

Other hazards associated with working in cold weather or cold rooms include the risk of slipping on icy walking surfaces, the extra muscular effort required to perform tasks, and reduced strength of grip when wearing gloves.