Freezing Conditions Can Add to the Disaster

Dangers to watch out for and how to stay safe when relining or cleaning in confined spaces in freezing conditions

Freezing Conditions Can Add to the Disaster

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Working in pits to clean or reline pipes and other confined spaces during the colder months can bring new sets of challenges for many workers.

They must stay warm while mitigating the hazards of only one point of entry. Getting trapped inside a tunnel or crawl space becomes even more dangerous when it’s cold due to the risk of hypothermia. Working in lower temperatures can also reduce productivity and response times to emerging threats. Workers can never be too careful when occupying these areas.

Avoid these dangers

Exposure to the cold can lead to a range of health complications, some of which can be fatal. 

Hypothermia sets in when the body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. When it gets cold, the blood thins out along the extremities to keep the core warm. Those affected may shiver or stomp the ground to generate heat until the shivering eventually stops. They may feel warm or need to remove some of their clothes as the condition gets worse.

Frostbite occurs when the skin freezes, damaging the underlying tissue. The body may start to itch or tingle before turning blue. 

Cold stress can lead to hypothermia in extreme situations and can also make workers less efficient. The body needs more energy to generate heat in the cold, which burns more calories. Workers may feel sluggish or lightheaded, their pulse will slow, and their muscles will lose strength and become rigid. Performing physical labor in a cold environment will only make the problem worse. 

The longer workers are exposed to extreme conditions, the higher the risk. The worker should be able to exit the confined space when the cold becomes too much to bear. If the staff is underground, their colleagues can use a fall protection retrieval system, including tripods and winches, to quickly bring them to the surface. 

Some individuals may suffer from pre-existing health conditions that make them more susceptible to the cold, including heart issues that limit circulation. These symptoms can occur in temperatures as warm as 40 degrees Fahrenheit. It all depends on a person’s personal comfort level and tolerance for the cold. 

Workers should limit their time in the cold environment by taking regular breaks. Everyone occupying these areas should be aware of the risks and speak up when they notice the warning signs. 

Wearing the proper personal protective equipment is the best defense against the cold. Workers should dress in warm, insulating layers that can be added or removed based on their body temperature. It starts with a lightweight, moisture-wicking, breathable underlayer. There should be enough space between each layer to let the air pass through. Keeping these layers clean is important, as dust and dirt can block air movement through the clothing, making it harder for the sweat to dry. This gear should be comfortable and properly fitted. Tight-fitting garments can restrict movement on the job, and loose-fitting garments can risk getting caught in equipment. Workers should wash their clothes regularly based on the manufacturer’s guidelines, and replace items that are damaged or no longer fit correctly.

It’s best to use thermal, insulated gloves with reinforced palms that make it easy to grip objects and surfaces. Workers must be able to use their fingers fully without too much fabric getting in the way. Hypothermia causes the hands to go numb, making it easy for workers to ignore potential injuries. You should stop working when you can no longer feel your hands and use cut-resistant thermal gloves when working around sharp objects. Insulated boots with up to 500 grams of Thinsulate can keep feet warm and moisture-wicking socks keep feet dry.

Wet clothing can quickly freeze while increasing the risk of hypothermia. If someone gets their clothes wet, they should leave the space for a warmer environment and hang their clothes out to dry. 

Every business should have a plan in place for responding to cold-stress emergencies. They can keep blankets, warm sweetened drinks and heat packs or hand warmers on hand to quickly increase a person’s body temperature.

Slips, trips and falls

The temperature inside a confined space will likely fluctuate as workers come in and out. Warm air can spread condensation and cause frozen liquids to melt, increasing the risk of slips, trips and falls. Workers should be sensitive to the changing temperature in terms of how it might affect their surroundings. Everyone should look out for wet areas on the floor as they move around a space. Managers should install signs in hazardous areas or those most likely to thaw to remind workers to go slow. Boots should have a slip resistance rating to increase traction. 

Gas and chemical leaks 

Confined spaces can be a hazard regardless of how cold they are due to a lack of ventilation. If the space isn’t designed for prolonged human occupation, the crew will need to test the air for toxic gases before entering. 

Certain equipment, including forklifts, expel dangerous fumes into the air, which linger in the space without proper airflow. Industrial chemicals typically contain toxic fumes that cause workers to feel dizzy or short of breath in enclosed spaces. 

Workers can install a fixed gas monitor or wear portable gas detectors to test the air while they occupy the space. If the air is unfit to breathe, workers can wear respirators that supply oxygen to avoid damaging their lungs. Once a hazard has been detected, the alarm should vibrate and be visual and audible to get workers’ attention. 

If a person is relining or cleaning in a confined space, they should use ventilation, wear proper respiratory protection, and when possible, switch to nontoxic cleaning supplies to reduce the risk of injury. 

A final word

Occupying any type of confined space can be hazardous. Low temperatures only increase the risk by slowing down the body’s reaction to potential threats. Crews can stay safe on the job by wearing the proper PPE, limiting their time in the cold and regularly checking spaces for toxic gases.


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