Severe winter weather poses challenge for many workers
Bitter cold temperatures this January are a concern for everyone, affecting travel and time at home, but for some people it also presents work hazards. Cold stress and dangerous working conditions are daily issues for all those who spend extended time outside.
Conditions created by the extreme cold are part of the seasonal challenges for local workers.
Firefighters deal with cold and conditions when they are fighting fires.
“Staying warm and dry is the biggest challenge,” says Scot Long of the Tecumseh Fire Department. “Everyone knows to have a bag with spare clothing that goes to each fire call to fight the cold in case they get wet.”
Besides keeping themselves warm, the firefighters have to be concerned about keeping equipment safe from the extreme cold temperatures. “The concern is for trucks freezing up, so water has to keep circulating through the truck,” Long said.
Frozen hoses are also a worry, so the water has to keep trickling through the hoses to prevent freezing. The downside is when the water trickles out it turns to ice, creating slippery conditions for the firefighters.
Clinton Police Chief Mike Randolph finds directing traffic or dealing with vehicles off the road is the biggest challenge. The concern is poor visibility makes police more likely to get hit by passing vehicles.
Road conditions make things dangerous for everyone, driving or walking. “Icy roads are always an issue,” Randolph said. “It’s no fun being on the road when it’s icy or slippery.”
The Lenawee County Road Commission helps to get the roads safe for drivers, but the extreme cold creates a challenge to get the work done. “Cold weather makes our equipment break down a little easier,” said Jason Schnaidt, Operations Manager for the Lenawee County Road Commission. “I feel bad for mechanics that have to go out and service the trucks that are down. It’s a pretty good challenge for them.”
Cold makes the diesel fuel gel up and clogs the plow and truck engines. Material in the sanders will freeze up and have to be chipped out.
In extreme cold, Schnaidt said the snow is lighter and fluffier, which means it blows easier and drifts more. To show the extent of drifts in the county, Schnaidt put a video up on www.youtube.com under the Lenawee County Road Commission.
If the snow isn’t drifting, it is probably getting packed down from traffic on the roads, presenting a different issue. “When the snow gets hard packed on the road, salt and sand will not melt it until the temperatures warm up,” Schnaidt said.
Postal workers face several difficulties in winter weather. Cold temperatures and hazardous conditions make every work day difficult in the winter.
“The biggest challenges are walking conditions, icy steps and walks not being cleared,” said Jennifer Tucker of the Tecumseh Post Office. “It gets to a point where we can’t get through.”
Tucker said that sometimes even when people shovel a path to the mailbox for letter carriers, there are different issues. Suddenly ice is exposed, and if it isn’t salted, the conditions become very slippery and treacherous.
Weather this past week has created intense drops in temperature. The cold air brings higher risk for cold stress for people working outside in the elements.
Decreased temperatures, increased wind speeds, dampness in the air, and contact with cold water or cold surfaces are the main components leading to cold stress. According to the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), environmental cold affects outdoor workers like snow cleanup crews, construction workers, postal workers, police officers and firefighters.
Without proper protection, trench foot, frostbite and hypothermia can happen and cause injury to outdoor workers. According to the OSHA website, cold stress starts with damp or wet clothes, exhaustion, poor physical condition, additional health conditions like hypertension, hypothyroidism and diabetes. Because the body naturally tries to keep the core (torso) warm, hands, feet and head lose heat first, and are the first to be affected by cold stress.
A chart put out by the National Weather Service details the wind/temperature ratio and how quickly frostbite can occur. If the wind is five miles per hour, frostbite happens in 30 minutes at temperatures from -10 to -38 degrees with a wind chill of -22 to -52 degrees, and in 10 minutes between -40 and -45 degrees with the wind chill of -57 to -63 degrees. When the wind is blowing at 30 miles per hour frostbite occurs in 30 minutes at temperatures 5 to -8 degrees with wind chill at -19 to -35 degrees, in 10 minutes with temperatures at -10 to -22 degrees with the wind chill at -39 to -55 degrees, and in five minutes with temperatures at -22 to -45 with wind chill at -55 to -87 degrees.
Workers are instructed by OSHA to prevent cold stress by dressing appropriately and avoiding alcohol, some medications and smoking. Three layers of clothing offer the best protection. The inner layer should pull moisture away from the body, a middle layer provides insulation and an outer layer repels wind and moisture and provides ventilation. Clothing should not be tight fitting.
Hats and gloves are a necessity, and insulated boots are important to keep feet warm. Extra clothing should be available in case clothes get too wet to keep a person warm.
During the work day there should be regular short breaks in warm, dry areas so the body can get warm. Work should happen during the warmest part of the day, and people should work in pairs. Warm and sweet beverages help raise body temperature, and workers should have access to radiant heaters.
Keeping warm and staying warm while staying safe is a challenge for many public service people in the winter temperatures. “We are looking forward to summer,” said Long.