Special Safety Considerations For Extreme Winter Conditions

Local 223 Safety Council

Avoiding Survival Situations

Crews and Supervisors need to establish criteria for what is considered a go or no-go mission. If the task is deemed important enough to send workers out into the extreme elements, those workers must be prepared for a survival situation. Provide them with the best tools and verify that they know how to use them. Ensure that things like vehicles employees use to travel are properly inspected and maintained. Mechanical breakdowns in remote areas are among the leading causes for winter survival situations. In many cases, a pre-trip inspection will have identified a problem that could leave a crew or workers stranded. Inspections, Checklists and equipment-specific training for workers are proven to reducing this risk.

Supervisors and crews operating in areas impacted by snow, ice and low temperatures should place great emphasis on this topic in their safety decision making and discussions. Although winter only lasts a few months, it can quickly create a dangerous situation if proper precautions are not taken.


A system of communication is the first thing that needs to be ensured when workers are in extreme cold temperatures. Supervisors and workers should notify each other of where they are going or at least a time estimate of when they expect to return, along with frequent “Check in’s” through the day or job if necessary. This way, someone knows that there may be a problem and can call for help with detailed information such as workers location or travel route in a timely manner should the need arise. The sense of security this provides to potentially stranded workers helps to prevent them from panic or attempting some action that could be causing unnecessary risk.

Survival Priorities

In a winter survival situation, shelter, warmth, water and food are the most important items on which to focus. The order of importance of these items will vary depending on the specifics of the situation. For instance, if a worker is injured, assuring his or her well-being becomes the top priority. Food is not a huge priority, but water is. It is necessary to stay hydrated, which will reduce the chances of cold weather injuries. It is important to note that simply putting a case of water in a toolbox or in the back of a truck will create 24 large ice cubes when workers need water. Plan to avoid things like this by protecting necessary items or equipment from cold temps to be ready in an emergency.

It is also important to ensure workers understand that if a heated building space is not available then a vehicle is the most effective shelter solution when stranded, even without engine heat available. If the engine is operable, carbon monoxide could be the greatest hazard, and crews should be prepared to deal with this. As part of ongoing maintenance and pre-trip inspections, the vehicle’s exhaust systems should be routinely checked, and corroded or rusted joints or components should be replaced. A disposable carbon monoxide detector placed in a truck during the winter may save a life if a crew becomes stranded. Remember, carbon monoxide poisoning is not always detectable by the victims, so the detector will warn them while they still have their faculties.

An analysis should be performed by crews and supervisors to determine which winter items will be most appropriate for the job and areas that employees will be traveling to or working in. Inspect the items before going out to make sure they are readily available and will work as they should. Redundancy is also important for items such as warm and dry clothing, gloves or hats. Sometimes If conditions are wet or certain items aren’t working, workers should have multiple options. Training is critical; in addition to carrying the items, each employee should understand how to use them.

Keep an Eye on Your Co-workers

The symptoms of hypothermia and frostbite may not always be noticeable to those suffering from the conditions, so it’s important to know the signs and symptoms to look for to keep your co-workers safe.

Signs of hypothermia include the “umbles” – stumbles, mumbles, fumbles and grumbles – which signify changes in motor coordination and levels of consciousness. Other symptoms are uncontrollable shivering; severe shaking; drowsiness; exhaustion; slurred speech; memory lapses; irrational behavior; and dilated pupils.

Signs of frostbite include paleness of the skin; sensation of coldness or pain; pain that disappears after a while as body tissue freezes; and body tissue that becomes increasingly whiter and harder.

If you notice any of the above signs or symptoms with yourself or a coworker, take the proper steps to treat them. These include the following:

  • Remove sweaty, wet clothing and replace it with dry layers. If needed, don additional layers to compensate for lower temperatures.
  • Get inside and out of cold conditions.
  • Increase hydration and caloric intake to help refuel the body and allow it to better regulate heat.
  • Depending on the severity of the situation, heat packs or hot water bottles may need to be introduced at the neck, armpits and groin area.
  • It is important to note that because of the circulatory and respiratory issues hypothermia and frostbite can cause, professional medical attention is a must in severe cases. All workers should be trained to recognize when this type of attention is needed.

Anyone who spends much time outside in cold weather may find themselves in a survival situation or at risk of frostbite and hypothermia. Different individuals will have different tolerances to cold, so one size does not fit all when watching for signs and symptoms.

Avoid unnecessary exposure, have a plan, be knowledgeable, be alert and be safe.

Click on this link to view the original communication from Local 223 Safety Council.

Dave Cafagna