Extreme winter construction requires important safety precautions

Published Feb. 4, 2020By Paul Rozich

Photo by Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York/Flickr

Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post from​ Paul Rozich, director of safety and risk management for Rockford Construction, a West Michigan-based construction, real estate development and property management firm.

As frigid winter weather approaches each year, our work at Rockford Construction doesn’t stop. In fact, even in the middle of January, we are currently working on more than 100 projects throughout the cold and snowy Midwest. 

Typical winter weather conditions include snow, ice, high winds, subzero wind chill and below-freezing temperatures. In Michigan where we’re headquartered, winter is often unpredictable, quick to arrive and slow to leave. Pre-planning is critical to ensure projects remain on schedule and, more importantly, workers remain safe. It is important that teams are trained and prepared for weather conditions and how they may impact the projects they are working on. Sitting down with project managers and superintendents to strategize about planning and safety implementation is imperative to a successful and safe winter season.

We continuously monitor conditions to make the best judgment call to protect our employees and trade contractors and when temperatures and windchills are at dangerous levels, we halt work for the safety of not only our workers, but the overall project.

Paul RozichRockford Construction 

Not being prepared for winter weather can lead to injury, mistakes, poor work product and delays that can affect completion dates, budgets and client needs. Safety must always be the highest priority and not something that should ever be put on the back burner or overlooked. Here are some of our best practices for a safe, successful winter construction season.

Employee Care

Workers face constant exposure to the elements in the winter with the combination of cold temperatures and chilling precipitation. Since the potential for hypothermia, frostbite or other cold weather-related injuries exist, companies must train employees and communicate with them to keep cold winter safety at the forefront. 

Field team members also need to pay close attention to weather conditions so they dress appropriately each day. Fortunately, there is a huge selection of cold weather gear on the market, including gear that is high visibility for enhanced safety. At Rockford, we provide our employees with several types of high-visibility attire for cold weather conditions and ask employees to layer their clothing, using some form of a face mask and a hat that fits properly under a hard hat. Water-resistant gloves as well as insulated and waterproof boots are also a must.  

Site Maintenance

There are many ways field team members can ensure safety needs are met before and during the winter. Before winter hits and the snow falls, teams must ensure that a site is clean and organized by taking care of basic housekeeping items like material laydown and storage in areas that might be affected by cold or snow. As the snow falls and starts to pile up, teams should be aware of other safety precautions like knowing what the roof load capacity is.

Additionally, if a project is exposed to the elements, it’s important to know what the floor load capacity is as the extra snow weight needs to be considered. Have a plan ready in the event a site requires snow removal as the amount of snowfall can fluctuate in a matter of hours. 

It is crucial that the surfaces and walkways on construction sites remain maintained so that contractors have a safe working environment. Two questions we always ask our team at Rockford Construction include: 

  • Has snow removal been assigned to a trade contractor’s scope of work or will we be using outside resources?
  • Will we be piling or removing snow off the jobsite?

Equipment Storage

If possible, it is recommended to store equipment in enclosed areas with heat. It is important when pre-planning to identify what options are available for equipment storage on the project during the winter months. It also critical to understand what equipment will be on the project and when and review that information with trade contractors.

In many cases, we build temporary enclosures that have a heat source to defend against the cold temperatures that can damage equipment. Cold weather can result in damage to equipment and machinery so it is critical to make sure all fluid levels are sufficient and to inspect tire pressure each day during subzero weather.

Ice Check

Another important safety precaution involves identifying overhead ice and snow banks that could injure workers. Make sure to inspect probable locations for the formation of ice or snow accumulation that can fall on personnel. Remove with care, if able, or rope off the area so that personnel will not be working beneath it.

If the project is open to the elements we plan ahead to make sure areas stay ice free. It is important to use the right de-icing product as a means to prevent damage to new concrete or other surfaces. To de-ice we use approved de-icing products, heaters and shovels to break up sections of ice.

Heating Equipment

When outdoor temperatures dip, portable heaters and propane tanks are often brought on to the site to keep spaces warm, which require additional safety precautions. Prepare a site logistics plan to include proper storage and protection of these tanks on stable and ice-free surfaces. In addition, follow OSHA requirements on how close tanks can be stored next to buildings.

Heaters should be placed on fire-resistant surfaces away from combustible materials in areas with proper ventilation. Heaters should be inspected daily by someone on the jobsite to maintain a safe work environment.

Winter construction brings uncertainty and never knowing exactly how each day will unfold. Always ensuring teams are prepared for the winter months keeps everyone on the track for success from groundbreaking to grand opening.