Cold, snowy, windy conditions are the norm this time of year and while we all look forward to the stray Chinook, if you work in the trades or out of a vehicle, it’s a sure bet that you’ll deal with severe weather sooner rather than later.  The biggest threat, despite what the local weatherman might lead us to believe, isn’t the snow or the wind, it’s the bone-chilling cold.  Since so many of our clients are in the trades and work in the weather, we decided to take a deeper look into just “how cold is too cold” for outdoor work.

Unfortunately, most legislation in Canada merely dictates the maximum level of temperature that workers can operate in.  British Columbia does have some guidelines about cold, but no specific law dictating when outside work must cease.  At the same time, we all know that many contractors view the weather as a force to be dealt with, not a reason to take the day off.  Even though there may not be rules to follow, there are multiple guidelines available. 

Where there are differences between the recommendations made by various organizations (and where there are no established limits or guidelines from your jurisdiction), the challenge, as an employer, is to choose the system that will provide the best protection for your team and to standardize that system.  A great way to standardize, if possible, is to create a cold weather dress code for all employees who will be working under adverse conditions.  Employers have a duty to take every reasonable precaution to make sure the workplace is safe for the worker.  This duty includes taking effective measures to protect workers from extreme cold when the majority of the work is done outdoors.

General recommendations include to:

  • Dress in layers of warm clothing, with an outer layer that is wind-resistant.
  • Cover all exposed skin.
  • Wear a hat, insulated gloves, a scarf, neck tube or face mask, and insulated, waterproof footwear.
  • Keep active to produce body heat and stay warm but take measures to stay dry (including taking steps to prevent excessive sweating)
  • Maintain a work/break schedule. Breaks should be taken in a warm area, with protection from drafts.

But once you find your employees in the correct cold weather gear, how do you protect them? 

A great example comes from the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists.  The ACGIH suggests a work-warming regimen when work is done continuously in the cold when the wind chill temperature is -7°C (19.4°F), heated warming shelters (tents, cabins, rest rooms, etc) should be made available nearby.  Workers should be encouraged to use these shelters, depending on the severity of the exposure.  If signs of cold stress are noticed, return to the shelter immediately.  For work at or below -12°C (10.4°F), work should include:

  • constant observation (supervisor or buddy system),
  • adjusting the pace or rate of work so that it is not too high and cause heavy sweating that will result in wet clothing
  • allowing time for new employees to become accustomed to the conditions
  • altering workload to include the weight and bulkiness of the clothing when estimating work performance and weights to be lifted by the worker
  • ensuring sitting and standing for long periods is minimized
  • providing instructions in safe work practices, re-warming procedures, proper clothing practices, proper eating and drinking habits, recognition of cold stress/frostbite, and signs and symptoms of hypothermia or excessive cooling of the body (including when shivering does not occur)

Effectively, these amount to only minor changes to how the actual work is to be done, but could require radical changes to the jobsite.  To help deal with working during cold weather, many of our clients opt to create their own “warming station” right in their upfitted truck or van.  Think about it – you can have a space built with headroom, electricity, and even built-in auxiliary heaters to ensure severe weather is easier to manage and work through.