Working in the Winter: How to Stay Safe and Keep Equipment in Good Shape

Each season brings its own set of challenges to construction job sites. In the winter, you can expect bitter cold, deep snow, and slippery ice. Each issue can put your crew at risk, damage your equipment, and put your job behind schedule. Rather than plowing ahead as you would in any other season, take a few essential safety steps. Follow the tips below to stay safe and keep equipment in good shape when working in winter weather.

Completing Construction While Working in Winter Weather

  • Keep Workers From Slipping and Falling

  • When the temperature approaches the freezing point, you’ll need to take extra precautions while working in areas open to the elements. After all, you don’t need a major snowfall or an ice storm to create slipping hazards. Air temperatures in the 30s can cause liquids to freeze sooner than you realize. Thin patches of ice can turn your job site into a skating rink with little warning. Whether your team members are working on the ground or dozens of feet above, you should put their safety first.

    To keep your crew from slipping, falling, or seriously injuring themselves, make sure everyone wears the right shoes. Non-slip footwear is important for all seasons, but proper shoes are essential in the winter. Everyone on your job site should report for duty wearing shoes with good traction.

    Like footwear, ladders can create hazards at any time of year. In the winter, help your crew avoid slipping and falling when climbing ladders. Before positioning a ladder, instruct your crew to inspect the surface for signs of ice. Ask your team members to remove snow and ice from their footwear before climbing ladders. Make sure that they use fall protection as a backup.

    Schedule regular breaks for your team, especially in extreme weather. When conditions are dangerous, you’ll want to make sure everyone is as alert as possible. Mandatory breaks and regular rest will help keep your crew focused.

    Another important way to prevent slips and falls is to slow down your crew’s pace. While some winter weather conditions comes as a surprise, you can plan for most of it. Do your best to work cold temperatures and winter storms into your project plans. Expect that your crew will work more slowly in the winter. Review safe working speeds at each crew meeting, especially when winter weather arrives.

  • Avoid Freezing Temperatures

  • Workers who aren’t used to freezing temperatures can suffer from serious health problems when working in the cold. However, anyone who isn’t prepared for cold conditions can also encounter ill effects.

    Freezing temperatures can lead to a range of health issues. Frostbite can happen when outer extremities freeze and hypothermia can occur when the body can no longer create heat. Trench foot can happen when workers’ feet are constantly cold or wet. Chilblains, or small ulcers under the surface of the skin, can occur after regularly exposing skin to temperatures between 32 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

    To help your crew avoid these serious health issues, make sure they dress for the weather. Ask them to keep extra clothing on hand. During the winter, workers should wear multiple layers of clothing that they can adjust as necessary. They should protect their heads, ears, hands, and feet in cold and wet weather. Workers should wear insulated, waterproof boots and winter work gloves that protect their feet and hands while allowing them to do their jobs safely.

    Keep your team safe by helping them stay warm. Provide warming stations or create a heated break area. Hand out hot coffee or tea, and encourage workers to bring thermoses. Consider shorter shifts during extreme weather, or think about adding an extra shift in the winter. Always plan the jobs with the most exposure for the warmest part of the day to minimize cold stress.

    Inform your crew about the risks that cold weather brings, too. Tell them what symptoms they should look for to identify frostbite and other cold stress issues as early as possible. Ask them to watch for visible symptoms in other crew members. Inform them how to treat cold-related emergencies and when to get help.

  • Streamline Ice and Snow Removal

  • When the ice starts to build up, and the snow starts to fall in your area, you’ll need to do more to keep your crew safe and healthy. You’ll need to prioritize ice and snow removal. If your area doesn’t tend to get much snow, you may consider doing the job manually. Before you assign your crew to use shovels, you need to know the risks.

    Shoveling snow and removing ice are common causes of wintertime injuries. Every year, more than 10,000 people need medical attention after attempting manual snow or ice removal. Some suffer from sprains and broken bones, but other injuries are far more serious. In fact, every year, about 800 of these patients have heart attacks when shoveling snow.

    Cold weather can increase blood pressure and constrict blood vessels. When doing a strenuous activity, such as shoveling, in the cold, a heart attack can result. Risk factors can also increase the chances of your workers suffering heart attacks. If your crew members are ages 45 and older, use tobacco, or have high cholesterol or diabetes, think twice before asking them to shovel.

    If your crew members do shovel snow, encourage them to move small amounts at a time. Ask them to move slowly and take frequent breaks. Have them work in teams so that your workers can watch for warning signs and prevent injuries.

    When possible, use heavy-duty equipment to remove snow from your job site. You’ll want to rent dedicated snow removal equipment if your area usually receives significant snowfall. If you aren’t expecting much snow, you’ll need to rent versatile equipment and the right attachments.

    Skid-steer loaders can work with snow blowers, and backhoe loaders can work with snow pushers. Telehandlers can use angle plows, and forklifts can work with snow buckets. Add on snow removal attachments when necessary, and use your equipment for common jobs, such as lifting and moving materials and people, the rest of the time. Consider renting machines with heated cabs to help your crew stay warm.

  • Maintain Equipment in Cold Weather

  • Whether you’re using snow removal equipment or standard machinery, cold weather can cause problems. You’ll need to take extra steps to keep equipment running smoothly and prevent breakdowns.

    When you aren’t using your telehandlers, loaders, or other machines, store them in enclosed areas. Keep them in lightly heated areas if possible. You’ll want to keep oil, fuel, and other key liquids at room temperature. When the temperature drops, oil can slowly get solid. This state change means the oil won’t flow smoothly, which can lead to major engine problems.

    If you use battery-powered forklifts and other equipment, keep the battery charge as full as possible. When temperatures drop, batteries use extra energy to turn over. If you have to start your equipment several times, you could run out of power quickly. If you can’t park the machine indoors, consider removing the battery and storing it indoors while it charges.

    In cold temperatures, never turn on the engine and start using the machine at full power immediately. Instead, let the equipment reach its normal operating temperature first. Run the engine for a minute or two, take the machine on a short test drive, and then put it to work.

    Extreme temperatures can wreak havoc on tire pressure. Before your team members start a task, ask them to inspect the tires and check the pressure. Have them inspect each piece of equipment before using it, too. Belt and hose cracks can form easily in cold weather conditions, but your crew can spot these minor issues if they know what to look for.

    Don’t forget to teach your crew how to use snow removal attachments safely. Provide training to show your team how to attach and use accessories correctly. Designate open areas or empty lots to allow your team to learn to navigate icy surfaces safely.

  • Understand the Strength of Materials

  • With the right equipment and heavy-duty heaters, you can finish almost any construction job in the winter. When very low temperatures exist, however, you may need to take extra precautions. If you don’t take the cold weather into account, the job could fail, or you could compromise your team’s safety.

    For example, concrete and mortar take longer to cure in low temperatures. For concrete and mortar to develop the necessary level of strength, you can’t allow either material to freeze for the first 24 hours after pouring it. Consider enclosing areas with freshly poured concrete or place high-powered heaters around newly laid bricks until the material cures.

    Cold weather also affects drywall and paint. Although frozen paint and joint compound may not cause structural concerns, they can slow your project timeline. Both materials take longer to set and dry in freezing temperatures. Keep construction areas enclosed and heated when possible to keep your projects safe and on schedule.

When winter weather arrives, don’t put your crew or your equipment at risk.