J.R. Moody

As the saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Cold weather working conditions set the stage for countless safety hazards, many of which can lead to painful and debilitating bodily injuries, including fatality. Rather than responding to cold illnesses after they’ve already set in, prepare ahead and prevent them from happening to begin with.

When it comes to dressing properly for the cold, layering is by far the most effective technique. The greatest benefit of layering is its functionality and flexibility due to the fact that you’re wearing, well, layers. As working conditions change – fluctuations in atmospheric temperature throughout the day, as well as body temperature as work becomes more or less strenuous – you can add or remove layers as necessary in order to maximize comfort, as opposed to working with a single layer that doesn’t give you any control over temperature regulation. Being able to make these adjustments on the fly and respond to changes makes it easy to stay safe and compliant.

The basic, go-to layering system is comprised of three layers: an inner layer which manages moisture and perspiration, a middle layer for insulation and trapping heat, and an outer layer which acts as a protective barrier against the elements, such as snow and wind.

To be the most effective, each layer needs to work in synergy with the other, which means construction and material are important factors to consider during selection.

Layer 1: Moisture is the primary enemy of warmth. Body heat is transferred to moisture at the skin’s surface, which is then carried away through convection by evaporation. This principle is most commonly connected to sweating, a mechanism the body uses to regulate its temperature and expel excess heat. Because you’ll both be trapping heat through layering, and increasing activity as you work, chances are you’ll break a sweat. To combat this and minimize moisture, your first layer of clothing should be made of a material that can soak up moisture while still maintaining its thermal properties. Wear inner garments made of wool, silk, or other animal fibers, or synthetic fabrics such as polypropylene (most known for Long John’s or thermal underwear).

Layer 2: Your middle layer should be designed for insulation, trapping warm air close to your body. Animal fibers such as wool and silk, goose down, and synthetic fleece are all safe options.

Layer 3: Another enemy of warmth is wind, which tends to work in tandem with moisture by carrying the natural heat which radiates from your skin away from your body. This forces your body to work to replace that heat, lowering your core temperature overall. Additionally, strong winds can rapidly lead to frostbite and other cold-weather injuries. With this in mind, when selecting your outer layer, choose fabrics which protect you from the elements. Windproof, water-resistant garments work best, but keep in mind it should still allow for some ventilation to prevent overheating.

Additional Tips:

  • For your inner two layers, avoid cotton. Cotton will trap moisture and become overburdened, and isn’t conducive to thermal management.
  • For your inner layer, also avoid down. While down has incredible insulating properties and is great for staying warm, those properties are all but completely neutralized when it becomes wet.
  • Avoid tight-fitting clothing. A tight fit will restrict blood circulation, limiting your body’s ability to carry heat to the extremities.
  • Consider the nature of your job when selecting exactly what sorts of garments you’ll select. Loose accessories such as straps, or even scarves, can become caught in moving machine parts. Strive to choose a combination of garments which work together to achieve freedom of movement, breathability, and comfort.
  • Remember when working outdoors, cold weather season often comes with reduced visibility due to snow and fog. An outer layer with high visibility properties can not only increase safety on the job site, but also assist rescuers in locating you in the event of an emergency.
  • It’s easy to spend so much time thinking about your legs and torso that you forget about your extremities. Double layer your socks (again avoiding cotton) and wear insulated, waterproof boots. Gloves are important, but be sure to select them with your job in mind. Mittens are better for warmth, but aren’t always practical when precision work is required. Consider fingered gloves with mitten attachments so you can adjust on the fly.
  • Cover your face and mouth with a knitted, wool (or other animal fiber) mask during extreme cold and winds, as the cheeks and nose are especially prone to frostbite and chilblains.
  • The hat you use should cover your ears. A lot of heat escapes from the head, so don’t skip this accessory.
  • It’s a good idea to bring backup layers with you to the work. If you’re sweating excessively and your inner layer becomes so bogged down it’s no longer doing its job, you’ll want a replacement you can change into as necessary.
  • Standing snow is extremely reflective. Although it’s not a matter of warmth, don’t leave your eyes out of the equation. The sunlight reflecting off of the snow (and subsequently off of nearby reflective metals), even with cloud cover, can be just as harmful as direct rays. And it’s not just about protecting your eyes themselves – snow glare can be incredibly debilitating while performing safety-sensitive and hazardous operations.
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