Mandatory personal protective equipment (PPE) use has become commonplace in work environments, often with zero tolerance for offenders. Yet seldom is protection from the winter elements taken as seriously or enforced as strictly. Winter wear PPE is largely left up to the individual employee, with little or no guidance to accurately assess the appropriate protection. The following tips can help you bring the same emphasis to winter wear PPE that other PPE elements command.

What’s the forecast?
A proper winter wear PPE program begins not with clothing or physical protection, but rather with an exposure assessment. And winter weather exposure assessments begin with having weather data disseminated to all employees well in advance of starting their actual work. This is easily accomplished by monitoring any one of countless Web sites that provide forecast information, real-time radar for storm tracking and satellite imagery. For more critical needs, there are services that offer 24/7 weather data specifically for your site. These services can call, email or fax designated personnel as weather conditions change. This real-time weather data allows you to more accurately assess the weather conditions to which your employees will be exposed and select the proper winter wear PPE.

Outfitting for the outdoors
Let’s start at the head and work our way down.

Since the head accounts for a significant portion of the body’s heat loss, it becomes critical in cold weather. When choosing winter wear PPE for the head, consider not only the need for protection from wind and precipitation, but also whether a hard hat will be worn, if hearing protection is needed and the amount of verbal communication the employee will need.

A knit ear band is the simplest of covers. Many vendors supply knit and/or flannel hard-hat liners that protect the top of the head and neck as well as the ears. These are economical and offer excellent protection from cold and wind. More severe exposures may require full head covers, with openings for the eyes, nostrils and mouth. They come in knit, flannel and even neoprene.

Moving on to the torso, it’s important to remember the advantages of layers. Dressing in layers allows the employee to bundle up more as additional protection is merited, and remove layers as conditions and work load change. As with any building, the foundation is critical to its overall success. The torso foundation should be a thin layer of clothing that will help move perspiration away from the skin to allow the employee to stay dryer, while shielding them from more abrasive outer layers of clothing. Simple, cotton t-shirts work well for the torso foundation.

While multiple shirts offer excellent layer protection, remember that as layers add up, the outer layers will need to be slightly larger to accommodate previous layers and to ensure they do not bind the employee, limiting circulation or range of motion. Outer layers of torso protection naturally vary from thin windbreakers to large parka type coats. Careful exposure assessment is necessary to determine the appropriate level and type of protection. Priority should be given to keeping the employee dry and comfortable, without restricting range of motion and while allowing the most flexibility possible in putting on or taking off layers.

Hand protection is often overlooked as a winter wear PPE area of concern. But poor winter hand protection increases risks to cold exposure and can decrease production as well. Inadequate hand protection can be dangerous. Hands and fingers are especially susceptible to extreme cold environments.

Hand wear should also begin with layers. A thin pair of cotton glove liners can increase the safety factor of any glove configuration immensely. It’s the best way to get moisture away from the skin while adding a layer of insulation. On the contrary, leather gloves hold moisture close to the skin, offer no insulation value, and exaggerate cold to the skin. Winter wear glove options are plentiful. Almost all gloves are offered in a “reinforced” version, which includes some cold weather resistance. Other than that, one should consider gloves typically found outside the work environment. These include mittens, ski gloves, neoprene gloves and a host of other options that can aggressively address cold weather exposure.

Leg protection is often handled by simple use of overalls. That’s fine in many applications, but use caution if excessive wind or precipitation is present. These conditions may require nylon “ski suit”-type material or even an outer layer of rain slicker material. Again, layering and body restriction are important.

Finally, we get to the feet. The feet offer a special challenge in that they are less mobile than the head or torso. This means blood circulation is less vigorous, and extreme cold can cause gruesome injuries before it is really detected as severe.

Winter wear PPE for the feet is readily available but seldom implemented to its fullest extent. Again, a thin cotton liner is an excellent start. With the feet, this may mean planning for an extra pair of footwear that is slightly larger to accompany the added liner and thicker-than-normal socks.

In most cases, winter wear PPE for the feet will include some sort of insulated rubber boot. Steel toe protection doesn’t need to be compromised but, in cold weather situations, fiberglass toes may be a better option because of the temperature transfer qualities. If rain, snow or precipitation of any kind is a consideration, replace leather footwear with a more water-resistant option.

Back inside
We’ve now covered head-to-toe winter wear PPE. But we would be amiss if we didn’t briefly discuss “the inside.” That’s right, you can give an employee all the proper winter wear PPE, but you still can’t place that employee in adverse weather conditions for extended periods of time.

Besides predetermined break schedules, employee rotation, proper PPE and warm break areas, there are small things that can make an incredible difference in employee comfort, safety and even production. Warm areas should be stocked with microwavable soups, hot chocolate and teas. To some this may sound silly or elementary, but the benefits of improved morale and comfort for cold, hardworking employees far outweigh the minimal cost.
In summary, winter wear PPE is simple and straightforward but doesn’t happen on its own. It can’t be forgotten. As with any other PPE program, a winter wear PPE program must be preplanned, discussed with employees, include proper training and be diligently implemented. Don’t leave employees “out in the cold” — prepare a comprehensive winter wear PPE program.