Construction WHS

Cold hands: dangers and prevention on-site

cold hands construction work

Working with cold hands will reduce performance and may increase the likelihood of accidents as a result of decreased dexterity, according to a Dutch research paper titled The hand in the cold: performance and risk.

Cold weather also increases the risk of working in winter with dangers such as frostbite and reduced sensation in the fingers along with the loss of fine motor skills – especially in wet, windy and icy conditions.

Staying warm during colder months is vital to reducing the risks posed by cold weather, especially when working in high risk jobs such as construction, mining and manufacturing.

Here are a few tips to help keep the hands and rest of the body warm and safe through winter.

Keep the core warm

Keeping your core warm is an essential component of keeping the hands warm, according to the Dutch research paper.

When the body cools down, extremities such as the hands and feet receive “drastically reduced blood flow” as the body focuses on vital organs. This results in what is described by the paper as “physiological amputation”.

The easiest way to keep your core warm is by layering items of clothing. In fact, the air between the layers provides better insulation than the clothing itself, according to the Canadian Centre for OHS – experts in working in cold environments.

If you get warm from doing something active, it’s easy to strip off a layer of clothing and still maintain good core temperature.

Start with thermal underwear that wicks (draws) moisture away from the skin. Additional layers should also be easy to open or remove while the final layer should be a high quality jacket that’s wind and water-resistant or proof, depending on the conditions. Clothing must not be wet and cotton is not recommended.

With some 50 per cent of heat being lost through the head, wearing a beanie or a thermal liner under a hard hat is also important to keep the hands and the rest of the body warm.

Use hand warmers

Single use disposable heat packs available from chemists are ideal for helping keep the hands warm and fingers dextrous in cold conditions.

Fast-acting, inexpensive and easy to use, they are air-activated and sit in your work glove, staying warm for up to ten hours.

Wear the right gloves

When working in the cold, wear a glove with a dual or thermal layer on the inside to keep hands and fingers warm, and a PVC coating on the outside to enhance grip and protect against cold, moisture, oil and grease.

Anything less and your hand could become wet, cold and potentially slip inside the glove.

The fit is critical too. Poorly fitted gloves – whether too loose or too tight – increase the amount of force that is required to perform a task, meaning less control. Furthermore tight gloves reduce dexterity and grip strength while loose gloves are a potential catching hazard.

Diet can help

The food you put in your body can impact on circulation. Cut down on sugar and salt as well as processed foods which are high in both, and stock up on oranges, garlic, cayenne pepper, ginger, salmon and watermelon; just some of the super foods purported to boost circulation.

If you’re chilled to the bone while working, try warming yourself up from the inside out with hot drinks and soups.

Get moving

Given cold weather reduces blood flow to the extremities, getting the blood pumping and body temperature rising with movement is critical.

If you don’t get moving, the body will start shivering, a natural defence mechanism against falling body temperatures, according to an article by the Harvard University Medical School.

“The rapid, rhythmic muscle contractions throw off heat that helps the rest of the body stay warm,” the article states.

Best not let it get to that though. If you’re sedentary, get active. If you can’t do that, then stomping the feet and clenching and unclenching the hands may help.


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