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The Ultimate Safety Checklist for Construction Workers Performing in Cold Environments

Some days, Mother Nature does her damnedest to keep you inside, but you know the job still has to get done. When you work construction in the cold, you need right knowledge, procedures and gear to keep yourself safe and working hard—so get familiar with some safety practices for extreme cold conditions.

Know Your Enemy

That animal we call the cold has a lot of different ways to sink in its icy claws. To fight it off, you have to know how it will attack:

  • Frostbite is one of the most common and dangerous ways the cold can get you. Frostbite likes to go for fingers, toes, ears and other extremities, freezing the skin and tissues. It can cause nerve damage and infection, so make sure to know the signs—like severe numbness, discolored skin and stiff joints.
  • Frostnip is what comes before frostbite. Red skin and numbness are the typical signs. Thankfully, getting someone inside and helping them warm up can reverse the damage before it gets worse.
  • Trench foot is a serious condition caused by foot tissue becoming damaged when from long exposure to cold and wet conditions. To help avoid trench foot, you’ll want a good pair of waterproof boots—which we’ll talk about in a minute—and a warm place to change footwear if water does get through.
  • Hypothermia is another one of cold’s favorite weapons. Extreme cold can bring your body temperature too low, causing symptoms like slurred speech, stumbling, shivering and drowsiness. If you don’t act, hypothermia can be lethal, so get anyone showing symptom to a warm place right away and give them blankets and hot beverages.

Once you know your enemy, have your response procedures ready to roll if there’s a cold-related health emergency. Some, like frostbite, usually need medical attention from a professional. Others, like frostnip, can usually be treated on-site if you’ve got a warm place to go. So read up on first aid for cold-related injuries, stock first aid and winter survival kits in all of your company vehicles and have an in-depth plan for how to transport an injured person to the nearest doctor or hospital.

Prepping the Site

A construction site needs some special preparations in cold weather. Before work starts, use rock salt or de-icer to melt ice out of walkways and clear snow from the ground and rooftops. Make sure there are walkable paths, laying some gravel down if you need to.

Any cold-weather job site needs a designated place where workers can easily get warm. Whether you’re applying first aid or just taking a coffee break, it’s important that nobody has to be out in the cold unless they’re working. Every employee on the job site should be taking frequent breaks to warm up—some experts even recommend breaks as often as every 20 to 30 minutes if it’s really cold.

Tents and trailers are popular forms of pop-up shelters for warmth. Even vehicles can do the trick in a pinch, though you don’t want to rely on them too much. A big part of staying warm is staying dry, so make sure your chosen shelter seals out rain and snow.

Multiple Layers of Cold-Weather Clothing

Most construction projects start with laying a foundation and building up from there. That’s how your cold-weather gear should work too. The gear that covers your torso, arms and legs is your foundation for staying warm. Build your armor against the cold by putting on multiple layers of protection, each with a different use:

  • A moisture-wicking base layer. This wicking layer, usually made from a light polyester mesh or other athletic fabric, preserves your warmth by drawing sweat up and away from the skin, where it can’t steal your heat. Try RefrigiWear’s Flex-Wear Top as a tough but flexible base layer. 
  • An insulating middle layer. The middle layer is usually where you’ll want the most insulating power to act as a barrier that keeps warmth in and cold out. Highly insulating material like synthetic insulation or wool are your MVP here. Classics like our RefrigiWear Thermal Lined Hoodie or new favorites like the PolarForce™ Hyprid Fleece Jacket make awesome middle layers.
  • A weatherproof outer layer. The top layer is your defense against rain, snow, sleet and all that other fun stuff, so want something that can shrug off the weather—like our PolarForce™ Extreme Cold Weather Jacket or our 3-in-1 Insulated Rainwear Jacket.

Footwear That Kicks Butt

From frostbite to trench foot, it’s clear that the cold is dangerous to a worker’s feet, That means there’s no time for boots that don’t give you the protection you need. Remember to look for these key features to make sure you get the right pair of cold-weather boots:

Insulation:

Your feet’s best defense against the cold is insulation. Our boots include a temperature comfort rating, so you can find the right amount of insulation for the temperatures you’re expecting to face. Our Extreme Pac Boots, for example, come equipped with insulated liners that are rated down to -60ºF. (Yeah, maybe we wanted to brag a little.)

Soles:

Ice and mud are everywhere on cold job sites. If you’re not careful, they can put you on your back. You want a boot, like our Extreme Freezer Pull-On Boots, that’s equipped with anti-slip rubber outsoles, plus puncture-resistant rubber plates that can help you avoid dangers like exposed nails.

Construction and Design:

Want to know how a boot keeps your feet safe? Look at what it’s made of and how it’s built. RefrigiWear has a full selection of designs and materials so you can choose the perfect features for you, from the classic lightweight design of our crossover work boots to the extreme performance of our heavy-duty pac boots.

Waterproofing:

Water inside your boots is a big “no”—it’s the major factor that leads to trench foot, and it can wreck your body’s internal temperatures. You can trust the high-grade waterproofing on models like the PolarForce™ Max Boots to keep your feet dry even in the wettest conditions.

Extra Features:

Our boots have a whole range of awesome features to give you just the fit you need. The Boa® Fit System on our Extreme Freezer Boots lets you fine-tune your fit in seconds, while the Resistor™ Boot’s design lets you slip your boots on easily thanks to a Velcro side opening.

It might seem like a no-brainer, but don’t forget your socks! Even the best boots can’t reach their potential if they don’t have performance socks working with them, so remember to pick up a pair of moisture-wicking, comfort-soft work socks like our Iron-Tuff Socks before you set out for a day of kicking butt on the job site.

Gloves That Can Handle It

Power tools are great, but the most important tools you have are your hands. Protecting them should be a major priority when you’re doing cold weather work. When it comes to gloves for the cold, you’ve got three main factors to consider:

Metal equipment and building materials can cause near-instant frostbite to a bare hand if it’s cold enough outside, so well-insulated gloves are a must. However, it’s also important you have enough dexterity to work without taking your gloves off.

  • Insulation: Metal equipment and building materials can cause near-instant frostbite to a bare hand if it’s cold enough outside, so well-insulated gloves are a must. At RefrigiWear, we’ve got the options you need, whether it’s ultra-thick like our Iron-Tuff® Insulated Leather Gloves or lighter like our Insulated Wool Gloves.
  • Dexterity: You need the ability to operate machinery or tools without taking your gloves off, so invest in some warm and flexible RefrigiWear gloves like the Waterproof High-Dexterity Gloves.
  • Finger Nibs: On today’s construction sites, you very well might have to operate a touch screen or a keypad. Once again, you don’t want to put your hands at risk by exposing them to the cold. That’s why RefrigiWear now has gloves with exclusive Key-Rite® and Touch-Rite® screw-on nibs that attach to glove fingers and make device operation a cinch.

High-Quality Headwear

Your jobs takes brains. That’s why it’s important to keep yours safe. Proper headwear is another must-have for a cold-weather job site. A classic beanie, like the RefrigiWear ChillBreaker Plus Cap, can go a long way toward keeping your head warm and dry. If you’re worried about extreme wind levels, a full-face balaclava might give you better protection. And, if precipitation is on your mind, think about options like our Iron-Tuff® Snap-On Hoods.

Preparing Your Body

Mother Nature will try to take you down. If you’re gonna outwork her, make sure your jobsite is fully prepared:

  • Keep warm beverages on hand and drink plenty of water on every break since the cold dehydrates your body faster. That also means you should go easy on the coffee since caffeine dehydrates you too.
  • Eat a hearty breakfast and lunch, and keep plenty of snacks in your break area that are high in healthy fats and carbohydrates.
  • Since the cold can put a lot of stress on your immune system, make sure everyone’s sanitizing their hands often to avoid getting sick.
  • Pack an extra change of base layer clothes in case you get wet. If that’s too much to carry, at least bring some extra socks.
No matter what the thermometer says, the job’s still gotta get done. If you follow these steps and equip yourself with the right gear, nothing will slow you down. Now get out there and show the cold who’s boss.