Cold Weather Safety Tips for Heavy Equipment Operators

Winter presents a unique set of challenges for construction. Heavy equipment is more vulnerable to breakdowns, but a larger problem is safety hazards. Make this season accident-free. Here’s how to ensure your fleet works in a safe, efficient manner all winter long.

Winter calls for extra caution with equipment

Operating heavy equipment always requires extreme caution, but when temperatures plummet and conditions become poor, responsible operation becomes even more important.

Before entering the cab:

  • Beware of frozen metal — Whether it’s pre-operation inspection or grabbing a handrail, frozen metal can draw heat out of exposed skin and generate a cold burn. And even the slightest amount of moisture can freeze to metal and rip skin off.
  • Take care on steps and grip plates — Ice can form in cold conditions, so take extra care climbing in or out of machines to avoid painful slips.

During operation

  • Expect poor traction — Under-inflated tires, icy patches and poor traction affect heavy equipment as much as they do cars. Ramps and bridges are especially vulnerable to ice formation and may freeze up well before solid ground.
  • Go slow — Wheels and tracks are both susceptible to slipping on ice or frozen ground. Go slower than normal to minimize sliding.
  • Make sure routes are clear — Ice and snow can conceal hazards like ditches, piles of materials or even bodies of water. Set up and follow traffic lanes to minimize risk.
  • Light up the jobsite — On short winter days or in snowy conditions, be aware that headlights alone may not be enough light to illuminate ground conditions or hazards. If the situation calls for it, it’s well worth the cost of a bank of work lights and a generator.
  • Keep windows clear — Ice or condensation can make it hard to see out of windows. Make sure work stops immediately if visibility becomes a problem.

Recognize the risks for operators

It’s not just equipment that requires extra caution in winter. Freezing temperatures bring with them specific health risks too. The stress of regulating body temperatures makes even healthy people vulnerable to illnesses, and there are several cold-related conditions that are particularly dangerous. Be aware of the signs of danger and how to treat them.

Hypothermia

Hypothermia occurs when the body temperature falls below 95 degrees. Watch for uncontrollable shivering, stumbling or decreased motor function and difficulty speaking. These indicate the brain has been affected by the cold. To treat an onset of hypothermia, remove any wet clothing and keep the victim warm and dry. Immediately call emergency services.

Frostbite

Frostbite is tissue damage caused by overexposure to the cold. Watch for red, white or waxy skin, accompanied by numbness or tingling, which means tissue is starting to freeze. Cover frostbite loosely and keep it dry. Do not attempt to warm or rub the area and seek immediate medical assistance.

Dehydration

Many people associate dehydration only with hot summer months, but it’s a major problem in winter too, as people often forget to drink enough fluids. Keep an eye out for symptoms, including dry mouth, decreased urination, headache or dizziness. Have anyone suspected of dehydration sit down in a warm environment and drink water or a sports drink. If the case is severe, seek immediate medical help.

Keep workers safe

You can dramatically reduce the risk of working in extreme cold by following a few safety guidelines. It starts with scheduling shifts during the warmest part of the day, if possible. Though deadlines don’t always allow for this, it’s a great way to reduce the physical demands on workers. And no matter when work is being done, allow for frequent breaks in a warm area, preferably with available hot drinks.

Next, make sure everyone is adequately outfitted in cold weather gear. Layers are a great way to conserve body heat, especially synthetic blends that wick away moisture. Make sure there is no unnecessarily loose fabric that could get caught in machines. Boots should be waterproof and insulated.

Eye protection should have an anti-fog coating, as it defeats the purpose if employees are constantly removing them to wipe away condensation. Gloves should be warm and flexible enough to allow tools to be used while protecting fingers from frostbite.

Make safety a priority

No matter what the season, safety should be a priority for everyone. Protect your employees and equipment with a winter-specific safety plan, and by putting safety first year-round.


 

Willy Schlacks is president and co-founder of EquipmentShare, a construction technology company dedicated to helping contractors and heavy equipment owners increase the utilization of their assets. Driven by ES Track, the company’s proprietary telematics solution, EquipmentShare enables contractors to see critical equipment data, such as asset health and utilization.

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