Protecting Workers in Cold Conditions

Employees working in cold environments face a number of hazards, including being slow to know they are in danger.

It takes imagination, not just experience, to grasp the hidden hazards of a northern winter, as Jack London revealed in his unforgettable short story, "To Build a Fire." London's tale of how the arctic elements slowly unravel a fatally unimaginative man drives home a truth safety managers should already know: Failure to anticipate the cold's unseen perils can be deadly.

Relatively few American workers die or miss work as a direct result of exposure to environmental cold. From 1992 to 1997, there were a total of 27 fatal occupational injuries caused by the cold, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Environmental heat ordinarily kills more workers in a single year. In 1997, out of a total of 1,833,380 cases of nonfatal injuries involving days away from work, only 244 were related to environmental cold.

Yet, London's fictional account of a single man's death may come closer to reality than all the facts and figures of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. What the BLS data cannot reveal is the indirect toll a cold environment may exact on those exposed to it.

Hidden Hazards

There were fewer than 24 serious injuries during the construction of the Alaska pipeline, one of the largest and most successful cold weather projects ever undertaken, according to Dr. Murray Hamlet, a cold weather injury expert who works for the U.S. Army.

While most companies in the lower 48 states do not ordinarily face the harsh conditions that confronted builders of the pipeline, the lessons they learned there more than two decades ago are still helping safety professionals protect workers from the cold. During that period, Frank Heyl wrote Staying Alive in the Arctic: A Cold Weather Survival Manual. The monograph is still required reading for many cold-weather workers.

Obviously, the starting place for cold- weather protection is donning the proper clothing. But Heyl, now working as a training consultant in Lake Oswego, Ore., recalls that during the construction of the Alaskan pipeline, a man was killed because he was wearing cold-weather clothing.

The worker had tunnel vision and impaired hearing simply because of his wool cap and fur-lined hood. As a result, he failed to see a pickup truck that backed over him. The unfortunate worker might have escaped with only a serious injury had he not been wearing a bulky parka, but his clothing got entangled in the truck's drive shaft, and he was quickly crushed.

The lesson of this incident is clear to Heyl: "You can give people the best clothing in the world, but if you don't manage it or use it properly, it can kill you."

Other hidden hazards of the cold are disorientation and carelessness caused by hypothermia, according to Cameron Bangs, M.D., one of the nation's most experienced doctors in the treatment of frostbite and exposure to the cold. Bangs defines hypothermia as a condition occurring when the body temperature is cooled below normal.

"In my opinion, many injuries are caused when people become hypothermic," said Bangs. "What happens is you don't think as clearly when you're cold, and you can make errors in judgment." He added that this is a great danger for utility line workers and those who are irregularly exposed to the cold while coping with other hazards that are not cold-related. Workplace injuries that result from hypothermic carelessness will not necessarily show up in BLS data as being due to environmental cold.

In addition to cold-related injuries, frequent or prolonged exposure to even moderately low temperatures can exacerbate underlying conditions, such as shoulder and extremity pain, lumbago, rheumatism, respiratory infections, hearing loss, chilblains and trench and immersion foot. Cold temperatures have even been found to contribute to carpal tunnel syndrome, according to Stephen Newell of Organization Resources Counselors who is a former director of the statistics office at OSHA.

Protecting Workers

Tom Brady is safety team leader for Alyeska Pipeline, the company that maintains the 800-mile-long Alaska pipeline Heyl helped build. When asked about the biggest hazards faced by his workers in low temperatures, Brady quickly agreed with Bangs and Heyl: Cold weather leads to a general decline in performance that affects safety.

"Our biggest thing with cold weather," said Brady, "is people just don't function as well when it's cold."

Alyeska relies on a combination of high-quality company-provided protective clothing and careful safety management to protect its workers. Brady said that in 20 years of operation, the company's workers have not had a single serious injury caused by exposure to the cold, despite confronting winter temperatures that can plunge to minus 60 F.

"From October to May, it's a company policy that anyone who leaves an urban center to travel along the pipeline corridor must have arctic gear," Brady said. "This is PPE (personal protective equipment) for us."

Brady described the required clothing as including a heavy, down coverall, arctic boots, a down head covering, arctic mitts and a down parka. There are security checks to ensure that workers are wearing the clothing. If they are found without it, they cannot travel until they get it.

What workers wear underneath this clothing is up to them, Brady said. There is some debate in the cold-weather community about whether wool or synthetics offer better protection. Brady said that, at Alyeska, some wear wool; others prefer synthetic materials, but everyone dons several layers. That is the key to staying warm in the cold.

Those exposed to harsh winter conditions need to be aware that cold is not the only problem they will face.

"There are three killers waiting for you out there in the cold," said Heyl. "One is the wet, then the wind and finally, the cold." Of the three, Heyl maintained that the cold is the easiest hazard to deal with because one only needs to add more layers. The wind is a little more difficult, he added, but water is the toughest problem in cold temperatures.

According to Heyl, wet clothes lose body heat 24 times faster than dry clothes. The problem of how to deal with sweat and external sources of moisture has much to do with the discussion about what to wear to stay warm.

Heyl leaves no doubt about where he stands in the wool vs. synthetics debate. "Twenty million coyotes can't be wrong," he said. "Wool is the best insulator in the world." The drawback of wool, he added, is that when wet it becomes heavy. Though it still provides some insulation, wet wool clothes hamper movement, hinder performance and add to fatigue: more hidden hazards.

Woolens are also less flammable than synthetics, and some operations do not allow workers to wear modern fabrics because of their low melt point. According to Heyl, when wool catches fire, "it turns to ash and drops off."

Bangs prefers synthetic fabrics. "Now there are some synthetics that will maintain insulation, even when wet," he argued. Moreover, synthetic fibers can dry far more quickly than wool, a potentially crucial advantage.

One synthetic fabric that wins praise from all sides as a great improvement for the outermost layer, in boots and clothing, is Gore-Tex. This fabric allows perspiration to evaporate, but prevents wind and water from penetrating.

The increased danger of hypothermia to workers who are wet, as well as cold is partly why fishermen have traditionally had one of the highest rates of fatal injuries among American workers. Though intense prevention efforts have since brought the numbers down, Alaskan commercial fishermen had a fatality rate of 200 per 100,000 in 1991-1992, far above the national average of nearly 5.0 during this period.

As for frostbite, Heyl opined that "only the crazy nuts or the stupid get frostbite." Bangs, who has been practicing medicine for 30 years, confirmed that he has been treating fewer and fewer such cases, in part because of better clothing. He said frostbite on the feet was the most common place for the injury, but he mentioned one memorable exception to this rule.

"I saw a delightful case of frostbite a couple of years ago," Bangs recalled. "Some cheerleaders sat on a block of dry ice."

Utility Industry

Workers on the Alaskan pipeline may be exposed to deadly winter temperatures, but they are generally well prepared for the hazards with warm clothing, cold-weather training and dedicated safety management. Some workers in other industries are not so fortunate.

Al Brockway is a crew leader at Consumers Energy in western Michigan, a gas and electric utility company. Brockway has been at Consumers Energy for 31 years and for 28 of them, has worked repairing utility lines in all weather conditions.

Unlike Alyeska, Brockway said his company has no established program for preparing its employees to work in the cold. Because most of the men who repair the lines are from western Michigan, Brockway believes they learn to respect the cold from an early age.

"It's kind of the culture around here. You know what to expect," he said. "You just wear all the clothes you can pile on to keep warm."

Brockway also noted that requirements of the job do not always permit workers to dress as warmly as they would like. Thanks to the use of bucket lifts, workers no longer have to climb utility poles. When they do, if they wear too much clothing, they can lose maneuverability and increase the danger of falling.

The result is utility workers have to get used to being cold in the winter, according to Brockway. Add to this the hazard of icy poles and the pressure of finishing the job once at the top of the pole and you have one of the most hazardous, difficult jobs imaginable. Brockway said he knows of workers who have fallen from icy poles and wound up with serious injuries.

An added danger for utility workers arises during a major winter storm, according to John Devlin, safety administrator for the Utility Workers Union of America. The pressure to restore power to consumers left in the cold can lead workers to take dangerous chances.

"In a storm emergency, I think people push themselves," said Devlin, "so fatigue, along with the cold, becomes a major factor."

After one storm in Michigan, Devlin noted, ground crews took dangerous risks while searching for downed power lines covered by snow and trees. "One worker actually walked into a fallen power line and was electrocuted," he said.

Devlin worries that competitive pressures unleashed by the deregulation of the utility industry are leading some companies to reduce their maintenance and emergency work forces. The result could be additional hazards during the next winter storm for the remaining workers.

John Challenger of Challenger, Gray and Christmas, an international outplacement firm, offers a more optimistic perspective on the way American business is responding to cold-weather management. Because of the tight labor market, Challenger said he is seeing more emphasis today on making the working environment one that will keep and attract good employees, and this includes protecting them from hot and cold temperatures.

"Today, you get your competitive edge by finding and retaining the best people," Challenger stated. "Some companies are not doing this, but they are suffering."

As for Brockway, he is still waiting for someone to figure out how to protect him from the bitter Michigan winters. Soon after toiling in 100-degree heat, he was asked which he prefers: cold- or hot-weather work.

His reply: "I'd rather work where it's hot."

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