Navigating Extreme Cold On Construction Jobsites

There is cold, and then there is extreme cold. The first is something we have all come to expect as a given during New York winters. The second – generally when the temperature dips below zero and the wind chill is significant – can be dangerous, even deadly.

We have had a period of very cold weather, with wind chills near or below zero. Winter will not officially be over until near the end of March, so it’s likely things won’t warm up for a while.

If you work in the construction industry on an active jobsite, you will be exposed to the elements for prolonged periods of time – especially if you work on the upper floors of a building that does not yet have walls or a roof. It’s important to be aware of what to expect, how to prepare yourself properly for long periods of being outside, and signs of when you need to get inside and perhaps even seek medical treatment.

How Cold Is Cold?

The human body’s core temperature hovers around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius). Hypothermia occurs when the core body temperature dips to about 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius) or lower. This can occur when the temperature is relatively cool, but not freezing – especially if you are wet as a result of rain, snow, or sweat. (The body loses heat about 25 times faster in water than in air). Wind chill is the term that describes the rate of heat loss on the body from the combination of lower temperatures and wind. (Heat gets carried away from the body faster, driving down skin – and eventually core – temperatures).

Signs Of, Treatment For, Hypothermia & Frostbite

Frostbite is damage to body tissues caused by exposure to extreme cold, but also is more comment in less severe weather because it doesn’t take much for your extremities to get cold. A wind chill of minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit can cause frostbite in a mere half hour. Frostbite causes loss of feeling and a pale or white appearance of fingers, toes, ear lobes, and/or the tip of the nose. If you experience these symptoms, get help ASAP. Slow warming of impacted areas is the key, but the core temperature must be brought up first. (Removing wet clothing, getting out of the cold and consuming warm liquids are all good while waiting for medical attention).

Hypothermia is brought on when the body temperature drops to less than 95 degrees Fahrenheit. It can be deadly, and if you survive, you can have lasting kidney, liver, and pancreas damage. Signs include uncontrollable shivering, memory loss, incoherence, slurred speech, drowsiness, and disorientation. Again, seek medical attention for impacted individuals ASAP. Remove wet clothing, wrap warm blankets around the head and neck, try to warm the core first, as starting with the extremities can drive cold blood toward the heart and cause heart failure. Offer warm broth, if possible, NOT alcohol or coffee or food.

Layers, Layers, Layers

The best way to protect yourself in extremely cold weather is to wear lots of loose-fitting and lightweight clothing. Trapped air between the layers will help insulate you and keep body heat in. If your job is particularly strenuous, avoid wearing cotton, as it takes a long time to dry. Synthetic layers that wick away moisture are a better bet. Outer layers should be water repellent, tightly woven and hooded – as long as that doesn’t interfere with your hard hat. A hat under your hard hat is key, as 40 percent of body heat escapes through the head. Cover your mouth to protect your lungs from cold air. Mittens are better than gloves but might be impossible for jobs that require dexterity. Consider using hand and/or feet warmers

As always, be sure to communicate with your jobsite supervisor about the weather conditions. If the forecast is extremely bad, it’s possible that work will be cancelled for the day. Additional break times might be necessary to allow access to portable fueled space heaters (remember that these require a certificate of fitness to supervise) and/or warming huts.