For most utility arborists and other tree-care professionals, working long hours outdoors comes with the job. But during the winter, below-freezing temperatures and high wind chill can create dangerous working conditions. From frostbite to hypothermia, there are a variety of health-related risks associated with overexposure to the cold, which is why tree businesses should take every precaution to keep their workers safe. Of course, combating cold stress is also essential for staying compliant with the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which requires businesses to “provide their employees with a workplace free from recognized hazards,” including weather-related threats.
How Cold Is Too Cold?
Depending on where your business is located, the definition of “extreme cold” can vary drastically. Tree professionals who work in the southern U.S. may not be used to working in near-freezing temperatures, while arborists in New England are likely familiar with harsh winter conditions. Ultimately, a right-of-way worksite is “too cold” when workers struggle to retain body heat or are exposed to persistent wind chill.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cold environments force the body to work hard to maintain its internal temperature, which can lead to injuries, illnesses and even death. In fact, the CDC found that approximately 1,300 deaths per year are caused by exposure to extreme cold. While most tree trimming worksites have safety programs and policies aimed at preventing these types of on-the-job accidents, cold stress can quickly turn into a serious case of hypothermia or cause lasting damage to muscle tissue unless properly treated.
What Are the Risk Factors for Cold Stress?
Beyond the environmental conditions, cold stress can be exacerbated by wet or damp clothes, exposed skin and a lack of winter-graded gear. Additionally, workers with pre-existing conditions and certain chronic illnesses are often at a higher risk, according to OSHA, such as hypertension, hypothyroidism and diabetes. With that in mind, understanding your employees’ specific health challenges is crucial for developing an effective cold-weather safety plan for tree professionals.
Combating Cold Stress With Proactive Safety Policies
Alongside general safety policies, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends that employers implement a cold-related illness and injury prevention program. Having a clear response plan is essential to catching these types of injuries early, so it’s important to streamline the reporting process and foster a culture of collaboration. All utility arborists should also be trained on first aid to ensure injured workers can be stabilized while waiting for medical assistance. To help businesses get started, the NIOS outlined several steps every employer should take to protect workers from overexposure to the cold:
Offer Hands-On Safety Training
Prevention is the best approach to combating cold-related illnesses and injuries, which is why every supervisor, manager and tree professional should be trained to recognize and treat cold stress, hypothermia and frostbite. Training materials should be written in a language and vocabulary that workers understand, especially if you have bilingual employees. One way to make this information accessible to your workers is to compile all resources, policies, roles and responsibilities into a thorough safety document that can be handed out to new hires.
Establish a Work/Rest Schedule
While it can be difficult to control your workers’ exposure to cold weather, it’s important to reduce the time they spend in hazardous conditions whenever possible. The NIOSH suggests using relief workers or a rotating schedule to ensure your employees can warm up when needed. It’s also helpful to provide workers with warm areas where they can change out of wet clothes. Supervisors should closely monitor at-risk employees as they go about their work and implement a buddy system as an added layer of protection during tree trimming.
Provide Appropriate Cold-Weather Gear
In addition to making operational changes, employers should also provide workers with appropriate cold-weather gear, including hats, gloves and boots. For particularly windy worksites, offering wind-protective clothing can help insulate employees from harsh environmental conditions. Additionally, all first aid kits should include chemical heat packs and a medical thermometer in case of emergencies.
Combating cold stress requires a concerted effort on the part of both the employer and employees, which is why establishing an open line of communication is paramount. This is especially true for utility arborists who spend hours performing right-of-way-work in remote locations.