With winter coming to an end, contractors across the country should be aware of the potential risks that working in the cold, rainy environments of spring may bring. The weather has an effect on everything from employee wellness to the quality of concrete. The following guide provides tips, tricks, and gear recommendations to ensure your company is prepared for the start of busy season.
The Effect on Worker Health
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is cracking down on enforcing employer regulations to protect the health of workers in the cold. In the spring, conditions are still dangerous to be working outdoors due to the potential of cold stress from rain. Cotton loses its insulation when wet, so it matters what you wear. Trench foot, for instance, can still occur in temperatures up to 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
According to OSHA, “Non-freezing injury occurs because wet feet lose heat 25 times faster than dry feet. To prevent heat loss, the body constricts the blood vessels to shut down circulation in the feet. The skin tissue begins to die because of a lack of oxygen and nutrients and due to the buildup of toxic products.”
To make matters worse, 37.5% of construction laborers say they do not have health insurance, according to MarketWatch. It’s important to get high-quality rain gear that is specifically designed for construction workers. A jacket must be waterproof (not water resistant) and mobile, yet heavy-duty, and lightweight, yet durable.
When coupled with a pair of bib pants, you can be sure your workers will stay dry. The key is to pay attention to the material. Look for rain gear made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC). PVC is a synthetic plastic polymer that is waterproof and highly durable.
The Carhartt Surrey line of rain gear is a popular choice for nonresidential construction workers. Made from PVC fabric, the Surrey line is lightweight but waterproof and breathable. Some other highly regarded rain gear brands for construction are Milwaukee Tool, DeWalt and Makita.
For road work, your workers will need more protection. Bulwark has a reputation for some of the safest, most durable gear for road work. Not only is it waterproof and high visibility, but it’s also flame resistant and meets the proper American National Standards Institute guidelines.
Lastly, your workers need the right boots. Muck Boot has built a well-respected name within construction for boots that stand up to any conditions. The Muck Chore or Arctic Pro, both with steel toes, meet American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) F2413-11 M I/75 C/75 EH regulations and will keep your workers safe and warm. For female workers, make sure they have access to proper footwear that is female-specific. Manufacturers like KEEN Utility are making strides in offering female-specific personal protective equipment (PPE).
Encourage your workers to bring a second set of clothes to change into during lunch. Finishing out a day in wet clothes puts your workers at further risk.
Spring is the windiest time of the year, with March being the windiest month. The spring winds are 3 to 5 times stronger than in July and August. For jobsite employees working at height, particularly those working on scaffolding, spring can be the most dangerous time of the year to be working. Protecting these workers would prevent an estimated 4,500 injuries and 50 fatalities a year, according to OSHA.
Falls are the biggest risk to construction workers. To make matters worse, having the proper fall protection is the most common OSHA violation (standard number 1926). OSHA also states that workers are not permitted to work on scaffolds in high winds or in slippery conditions unless a competent person has said it is safe to do so.
These decision-makers have to be especially diligent during the spring. Scaffolding on a particular jobsite needs slip-resistant treads on all stairs and landings, needs to be set up on sound footing, and should not carry more weight than it is designed to hold. Contractors working on boom and scissor lifts should also be protected with guardrails, fall-arrest systems, safety nets, covers and restraint systems. Make sure you prioritize your workers’ safety over downtime.
The Effect on Materials
The spring weather can expose a lot of mistakes made during groundwork that is completed in the winter. For instance, if concrete is poured on frozen ground, the ground will loosen in the spring and could compromise the concrete bearing.
The durability of concrete is lowered by 40% to 60% when it freezes and then thaws, which ultimately reduces its strength by up to 40%. Contractors can combat this issue by using products like antifreezing components mixed into the concrete or blankets meant to trap the heat for the concrete to bind properly. Both have allowed contractors to counter this potential cold-weather challenge. By using these admixtures, it ultimately accelerates the cement hydration when temperatures are below freezing.
Also, low temperatures can impact successful and timely drywall and paint installation. For example, joint compound used on drywall becomes more brittle in the cold and won’t dry correctly. Paint also thickens when cold and will take longer to dry, which can add time to projected production. When using a sealant outside of the preferred 39- to 100-degree F range, manufacturers can offer suggestions as to how to prepare for proper adhesion.
When it comes to cementitious fireproofing on structural steel, the steel must maintain a minimum of 40 degrees F for 24 hours before application, during the application, and for a minimum of 24 hours after the application. If this temperature is not maintained, you risk failed adhesion. Each jobsite that is completing this phase of work in cold weather should take proper precautions to keep the area warm. Have someone on fire watch at all times if your team is using space heaters to do so.
The Effect on Equipment
The end of the winter season is a major relief for most contractors. It not only has a major impact on the productivity and psyche of your workers, but it also impacts your equipment. Jobsite managers should continue their habit of routinely checking equipment that has been on the jobsite through the winter.
The most commonly overlooked issue cold weather brings to a jobsite is tire pressure. For every 10-degree F drop, your tire pressure drops 1 pounds per square inch (psi). Equipment with air tires that has been on a jobsite all winter long is likely at risk of tire failure from underinflated tires.
Second, make sure to check the battery life of your equipment so that you don’t run into unexpected downtime during busy season. Cold weather causes batteries to die, typically because of damage done during the warmer months. The cold causes a reduced cranking power and slower chemical reaction inside the battery, making it harder for the engine to turnover. The fluids inside the engine thicken, which can impact seals and joints causing friction.