Everyone has to be aware of the risks when spending time outdoors in the winter, and no one more than tradesmen. Working outside all day makes you more vulnerable than most to trench foot, hypothermia and frostbite. If your hands are cold, your grip and focus can be affected, endangering you and those around you. But just as likely, it’s just plain uncomfortable to freeze your butt off all day.
In order to avoid these problems, you should be proactive and adjust your work schedule to compensate for the cold. Here are a few things to consider when planning for the weather.
It might seem like a problem more frequently associated with heat, but staying hydrated in the winter is just as critical. Cold weather doesn’t stop you from exerting yourself and sweating, which has to be replaced by drinking water. In cold weather, the air you breathe is drier, so your lungs have to work harder to humidify and warm that air.
Staying hydrated keeps up your energy level, endurance, muscle strength and even your mood. Specifically in winter, staying hydrated can keep you warm by improving circulation.
The problem is that you can be dehydrated without feeling thirsty. So make it a habit to drink. Always have a bottle or thermos by your side and drink at least every 20 minutes. Hot beverages count and can help to keep you warm. Herbal (i.e. non-caffeinated) tea or even hot water with lemon are great options. Remember to drink more if you’re also drinking coffee, tea or soda, since they tend to dehydrate you.
While you may not feel it as much, the sun still shines in winter (and UV penetrates clouds). Of course, the higher your latitude, the less of an issue the sun is, especially in winter. But you can still get a sunburn on exposed skin and suffer from skin cancer in the long run. Covering your skin is the easiest protection. In winter, this is mainly for your head, for the more hair-challenged among us, and the back of your neck.
You should apply sweat-proof sunscreen in the morning and reapply 1-2 times throughout the day, depending on your exposure. Consider a brimmed hat, bandana and sunglasses. If you are working hard and get warm during the day, stripping down exposes your skin. You can also purchase clothing with built in UV protection at outdoor and sporting stores. These clothes are often lightweight and breathable, so you shouldn’t feel burdened by them.
Know the signs of cold stress
There are three levels of cold stress (from mildest to most serious): trench foot, hypothermia and frostbite. Frostbite isn’t a real risk since you most likely wouldn’t be working in weather cold enough to frostbite you, so let’s skip that.
Hypothermia is also relatively rare if you’re active, but it’s possible even if the air temperature is as high as 50 degrees, especially if you get wet. Hypothermia is basically the slow freezing of your body. Once the body drops below 95 degrees, you can start to exhibit symptoms of mild hypothermia, including shivering and numbness in the extremities.
If steps aren’t taken to warm you, the hypothermia will worsen, which will be reflected in impaired coordination and/or speech, confused behavior and impaired judgement. In severe cases, shivering and the feeling of cold will stop, confused behavior and impaired judgement will worsen, including a glassy stare, slowed breathing and eventual unconsciousness.
If someone is exhibiting symptoms, you should call 911 and take immediate steps to warm them, gently. Move the person to shelter, remove any wet clothing and warm them with blankets and dry clothes, especially their head and neck. If hot water bottles or heating pads are available, place them in the armpits, around the groin and on the back of the next. If they are alert, have them sip a hot liquid.
Trench foot is a more common issue, especially among construction workers. It can occur in temperatures as high as 60 degrees if conditions are wet. Symptoms include redness, swelling, numbness and blisters. If symptoms develop, remove wet shoes and socks and air dry your feet in a warm area. Keep your legs elevated and avoid walking. Seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Dress for the weather
To avoid these afflictions, it is absolutely vital to dress for the weather. Most importantly, protect your feet. A good winter boot should be waterproof, insulated and have good traction to prevent slipping on ice or snow. For a full breakdown of how to pick the right boots, check out our blog post on the subject. In that post, you can also find details on socks and liners to keep your feet warm and dry.
Next up, your hands. You may choose to work barehanded. You can’t always wear gloves. If that is the case, you should keep some mittens in your pockets to slip on when you’re not using your hands. If you can wear gloves while you work, there are lots of great options. You should go for something that is waterproof and insulated, but as fitted and thin as you can, to keep your dexterity and grip.
The Ergodyne Proflex 817WP is waterproof and has Thinsulate insulation to keep you warm, without a lot of bulk. The glove has suede palm and fingertip reinforcement and thumb and forefinger touchscreen capability. It even has a soft patch on the thumb to wipe your brow.
As with your hands and feet, the most important thing you can do to keep yourself warm and safe is wearing the right clothes. Let’s start from skin up.
If you are working in frigid conditions or tend to sweat a lot, a base layer is extra effective at drawing sweat away from you and pushing it to your socks to get evaporated away. This means you stay drier and more comfortable, especially in extreme weather conditions. Silk and thin wool are great options, as are technical synthetics.
According to your comfort and need, add mid-layers that act as insulation. Opt for wool and synthetics, in place of cotton, since they insulate better and wick sweat away.
On top of it all, you’ll need a shell that is wind and waterproof to protect you from the elements. Consider something from Carhartt, which is really tailored to workmen and their needs. You could go for the insulated, waterproof Shoreline Jacket with its soft interior and tough shell. Alternatively, you can go for something technically designed for hikers and outdoor sports enthusiasts, like the Burton Dunmore. Burton designs for snowboarders so there jackets are roomy and can take some abuse.
One last tip. If you have never used warmers, give them a try. You can keep them in your pocket to use before lunch or slip them in your boots before you even start your day. Grabber is a popular and reliable brand. There are different shapes and strengths for every need. They’re pretty great. If you’re the boss, be a hero and provide some on extra cold days to keep your crew (more) comfortable.
Change the way you work
When the temperature decreases, it isn’t weak to be affected, it’s human. You aren’t doing yourself or your client any favors by pushing yourself and ending up sick or injured. Work smart, take breaks to warm yours hands in front of a heater, stay hydrated. Be safe.