Winter Working Hazards
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 man’s unimaginable fatality 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 works 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 colds.
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.
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, Oregon, 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.
Tom Brady is the 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 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 melting 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."
Real-Life Construction Site Work
In Alaska, North Dakota, or even New Mexico and Texas, cold weather brings hazards in a variety of ways. Above, the article discusses how employees mitigate cold hazards by layering clothing. Equally important is how the cold impacts our equipment and processes used daily. In the two examples below we will highlight a Near Miss and one Fatality which involved snow, ice, and cold weather.
- First, the Near Miss occurred recently on a job site. Cold weather had rolled in with temps well below freezing and a wind chill of -10 degrees. Ice, Sleet, and Snow had built up within the pipe yard. A truck was scheduled to arrive and be loaded with poly pipe which was needed for the project that morning. The inspector asked if the pipe could be loaded out later in the day due to frigid temperatures and the possibility of ice accumulation on the pipe.
The inspector was advised the trailer had arrived and was ready to be loaded. Utilizing the forklift, he began loading the ice-accumulated pipe that is bundled in fours onto the trailer floor. Once he picked up the second bundle of four and as he was placing them on the first bundle, they slid into the trailer pipe standards, which were placed into the trailer railing and not the intended pipe standard pocket. The weight of the piping caused the trailer railing to break, allowing the top bundle to fall 5-1/2 ' onto the ground. The inspector inspected the fallen pipe, which was not damaged. The inspector shut down and notified Safety about the Near Miss, and informed the client representative.
The incident was also discussed with the truck driver and it was determined that the truck driver placed the standard in the incorrect position causing the side railing to fail and the standard to not support the load. After the driver placed the standard in the proper pocket, the operator was able to load the pipe properly without issue. The trucking company was also informed that the trailer standards were not of the proper sizing to support that size of poly pipe either.
Contributing factors for this Near Miss:
Improper placement and sizing of the trailer standards
The icing on the pipe, allows the bundle to slide
Lack of Stop Work action taken prior to loading pipe due to ice and positioning of standards.
- The second incident unfortunately ended with a fatality. This incident did not occur with any of the Eagle Infrastructure companies, but with a prior project subcontractor, I was involved with several years ago. Cold weather, fatigue, and lack of situational awareness resulted in this tragic event.
Similar to the Near Miss above, the subcontractor was loading out mats from a completed project. The skid-steer would bring the mats from the ROW and load them onto the flatbed trailer. The track hoe operator had a swamper that would assist with making sure the matts were squarely loaded onto the trailer prior to strapping down and transporting. The track hoe operator would use a bucket and thumb attachment to align the mats, picking up and adjusting them perfectly on the trailer while awaiting the next load.
As day 2 of this activity carried on with repetitive activity, complacency and lack of situational awareness began to appear. The weather conditions were cold and icy with a slight breeze; tough on anyone having to work in such conditions. Around 10:30 am the swamper informed the track hoe operator he needed a break. The next load would take 10-15 min to arrive. The swamper warmed up in the cab of the truck and prior to the arrival of the next load, he got out and called a friend on the cell phone. With the slight breeze, the swamper pulled his jacket hood over his head while talking on the phone and happened to lean against the trailer.
The second load of mats arrived and was placed on top of the prior mats. The track hoe operator began to square up the mats by reaching over the stack and pulling them towards him. However while doing so, the swamper who was standing on the opposite side of the trailer, and not visible to the operator, was crushed between the track hoe bucket and trailer. The employee was found moments later collapsed on the ground, bleeding from the ears, and the cell phone on the ground beside him. The presumption was the swamper had leaned up against the trailer while talking on the phone unaware that the bucket was approaching from above his head.
A combination of issues was contributing factors here:
Swamper was out of sight from the operator while working / stacking
Swamper was on their cell phone while working
Clothing (Jacket Hood) and holding the phone to face caused issues with seeing the approaching bucket prior to crushing
This was a preventable incident. Take time to Stop Work when things don't line up. Remain aware of yourself and your fellow man.
Lessons learned from these stories when it is cold outside, it is harder to work. We place additional clothing and gear around us, restricting movement and visual awareness. Take time to evaluate the reactions of water, ice, and snow on pipes, equipment, and surfaces. We hope these stories help make one think and focus on how cold weather impacts our normal work.
Safety Employee of the Month
Brad "Tank" Harmon has been selected as our Safety Employee of the Month and also named 2023 Pipeliner of the Year by the Pipeliners Club of Tulsa