Hands on fighting the elements
Outdoor workers need to protect their hands more than most as they are facing the elements.
WE’RE USED to covering our hands to protect them against the cold, but never is this practice more important than for those who work outside during the winter months. Outdoor workers come up against numerous obstacles when the temperature drops; ice, snow, rain, and general freezing conditions are amongst the hazards that they’ll have to deal with on a daily basis.
On average, it takes 10 days for the human body to adjust to new weather conditions. As we move into the final months of the year, being prepared in advance of the cold winter months is vital, especially as injuries often occur in the acclimatisation period.
Because thick layers often mean less dexterity – and conversely higher levels of dexterity can mean less insulation – it can be hard to find a safety glove that allows workers to continue their jobs effectively whilst keeping hands protected from the adverse weather conditions. On top of this, the regular points when thinking about hand safety should also be considered – cut level, grip, coating, and fit – to ensure that workers are fully protected from all hazards.
If a worker is exposed to temperatures below 4°C, thermal gloves should be worn. These gloves, as a minimum, should provide warmth and water-resistance, in addition to good grip and flexibility. Working continuously in cold and wet weather without adequate thermal protection can have long-standing consequences. By being better armed with knowledge, more intelligent choices can be made when it comes to PPE equipment. This will reduce the amount of precious working hours lost to injury and illness.
Chilblains are small itchy swellings on the skin. They most often affect the extremities, such as fingers, and are caused by bad circulation in the skin due to exposure to cold, damp conditions. Whilst chilblains are uncomfortable and irritating, they rarely cause any permanent damage to the fingers.
In the unfortunate case of chilblains: rewarm the skin slowly, without applying direct heat or rubbing the skin. Apply a corticosteroid cream to ease the itching and clean skin with an antiseptic to reduce the risk of infection. Don’t scratch the affected area as this could leave scarring.
Frostnip is a mild condition where the outer layers of skin tissue freeze. It is the stage before frostbite. As long as it’s not left untreated, the tissue damage won’t last, but sensitivity to the cold may persist.
Frostbite, however, is more serious and can’t be reversed. The layers of skin and deeper tissue freeze, damaging the capillary walls and making the cells in the affected area sensitive and inflamed. Treating frostbite will need to be carried out by a doctor and may include rewarming, protecting the injury from infection and removing the damaged tissue.
Remaining exposed to cold temperatures for prolonged periods of time could lead to the extremely dangerous condition – hypothermia.
The normal temperature for a human body is 36.5-37.5°C. Hypothermia occurs when this temperature drops below 35°C – blood is receptive to changes in temperature as small as 0.5°C, so a drop of around 2°C can be lethal. The symptoms will begin with shivering and progress to confusion, slurred speech and a slowing heart and respiratory rate.
If a worker appears to have hypothermia, seek immediate medical attention. While waiting for assistance to arrive, take the following actions: gently move the person out of the cold to a warm, dry location, remove any wet clothing and cover in blankets, leaving only the face exposed, monitor breathing and supply them with warm beverages if they’re conscious and able to swallow
Once transported to hospital, the doctors will decide what medical treatment is necessary.
Hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS) is the name for a collection of debilitating conditions associated with the continuous use of hand-held power tools and industrial equipment. The condition is exacerbated in cold, wet conditions and will only get worse if workers are continually exposed. The violent vibrations from such machinery, leading to chronic ailments such as carpel tunnel syndrome (CTS) and vibration white finger (VWF).
HAVS can be categorised by numbness in fingers (nerves), loss of dexterity (muscles), colour change (blood vessels). The fingers can turn white, giving the condition its name. In extreme cases, the fingers can be lost entirely. The symptoms of HAVS were first recognised by Dr. Giovanni Lorgia in 1911, who noticed a link between worsening symptoms and cold weather.
Standards for gloves
All of these conditions can be prevented with the correct protective equipment. Making the right choice when it comes to safety gloves can make all the difference, and understanding how cold-weather gloves are rated is the first step.
EN 511:2016 sets out the methods for testing safety gloves that will protect against the cold to temperatures as low as -50°C. During the test, gloves are rated 0-4 for how well they can withstand: convective cold (losing heath through the movement of air or water on the skin) and contact cold (losing heat through physical contact with an object). They are also rated 0-1 on water permeation after 30 minutes.
As with cut protection, the higher the number, the higher the level of protection against cold. For example, a glove rated 331 will protect highly against both contact and convective cold and will be water resistant.
How to protect yourself
When working in cold environments, body heat needs to be retained. Winter hand protection should have two layers; the outer layer for cut protection, and the inner insulating layer. Fingertips are one of the first places to lose heat, so make sure they’re well insulated. Poor quality safety gloves will compromise the protection of the fingertips. A glove with a built-in insulating layer, or a separate thermal liner, will reduce this problem.
Whilst warmth should be a high priority in the winter months, there should be no less emphasis on getting a glove suitable for the task. If workers don’t have enough dexterity to carry out their tasks, they may be forced to remove their gloves, leaving them totally unprotected to the weather and other risks involved. Workers could also have to strain their hands to get the job done when wearing safety gloves with inadequate grip, leading to further injuries and lost time.
Fit is vital
Safety gloves come in a variety of sizes for a reason. Make sure each worker has a well fitted pair of gloves. If they’re too tight it will stop the blood flowing freely around the hand, resulting in poor dexterity. By contrast, gloves that are too loose may cause the cold to get in and can be dangerous when using power tools – excess fabric may become caught in rotating equipment.
In contact with water
Increased rain can also cause hazards to works hand safety. When exposed to cold water temperatures, body heat can be lost up to 25 times faster. It sounds simple but when working with wet components, make sure the safety glove has a waterproof coating. If immersing hands fully in water, wear a fully coated waterproof glove with a thermal liner for extra thermal protection.
Risk of slipping increases in wet conditions, which can also cause hand injuries, therefore cut protection is still an important consideration.
Seemingly everyday tasks can become more dangerous when you factor in the cold and wet weather; a task that is relatively risk-free in warmer weather may cause serious and long-lasting injuries when undertaken in the cold. By understanding the risks associated with not wearing the right safety gear in the winter months, the amount and the severity of injuries can be reduced.
Nowadays, with increased awareness of health and safety at work, it’s more important than ever to provide and wear the correct equipment. The right gloves are crucial, not least so workers don’t have a false sense of security in their protection. Every worker deserves feel safe at work, whatever the weather.
Article first appeared in Health and Safety Matters