Health and Safety: Working in cold weather

Working in hot weather brings with it a whole host of problems when the heat may tempt some people to cast away thick, protective clothing and perform their duties wearing nothing but shorts and a smile.

Cold weather is not so much a problem, as safety equipment is generally very thick, and when put on top of existing clothing gives the layered effect that outdoor types aim for.

But when the temperature drops really cold, things can take a turn for the worse.

Avoiding the cold

In the UK, there's no legal upper or lower working temperature when outside. You just have to put up with it or wear something appropriate, or even better, choose another time to work.

HSE make it clear that in cases where temperature reaches dangerous levels, higher or upper, then you should really consider whether the work should be carried out at all.

Maybe it could be postponed.

But of course, in some cases (such as emergency repairs), what has to be done, has to be done.

The two big enemies of cold working are hypothermia and frostbite.


When dealing with lifting or heavy plant, frostbite is a particular danger.

It is caused when tissue freezes, and usually affects the extremities such as fingers, face, ears etc. This freezing can occur when the ambient temperature is extremely low, or worse, when touching something that is already really cold, such as the controls of lifting or hydraulic equipment.

Obviously hat and gloves are your friends here, but many people complain about not having the same control when using thick gloves and not having full visibility when wearing thick headgear.

The answers is of course to compromise.

When operating equipment that has been outside in the cold for a very long time, it's prudent to wear some kind of protection such as gloves, but after some use, the equipment might warm up.

Frostbite can be very nasty, leading to damaged tissue which in some cases may need to be removed, but even if there's no permanent damage, after suffering it, you are more likely to be affected in the future.


Hypothermia is far more dangerous. It happens when the body can't maintain its core temperature, and when the core loses only a few degrees of temperature, the effects can be dramatic.

Firstly, the body tries to reduce heat loss by slowing down blood flow to the extreme parts of the body such as arms, legs and skin. It also increases the shivering response in an attempt to warm you up.

Now, you've probably heard many times how people have been killed by hypothermia, but that's not the only danger.

Even before you get to the point where your body can no longer cope and it completely shuts down, you will be affected mentally.

This can be extremely dangerous, especially when working hydraulic tools or lifting gear.

You will lose coordination, become irrational and suffer from poor coordination.

It can also bring on other problems such as HAVS

How to protect workers

So are there ways to ensure these problems don't result in death or injury?

Of course there are, here are a few:

  • If conditions are particularly extreme, explore all avenues to postpone the work.
  • Wear appropriate clothing for the job. Not just against cold, but also waterproof if necessary. Even highly insulated clothing becomes useless if water can penetrate to the skin.
  • Layer up. Layers are the ideal solution to many clothing problems. Often, layers will also provide better heat retention than a single thick layer as they trap air between them. They also enable the worker to remove and add them as necessary.
  • Don't wear cotton next to the skin, it absorbs sweat rather than wicking it away. Instead, choose wool or specialist synthetics.
  • Ensure the grip of your footwear is adequate, but remember that even a thick tread is pointless on ice.

Above all, ensure all workers are trained in safety procedures, emergency and have first aid at hand. Extreme weather can be unpredictable.

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