by Sally Colby
Dressing for winter weather conditions can be challenging, and it’s easy to make the wrong choices when selections for the day are made before the sun rises. However, it’s a lot easier to be prepared for the weather on any given day than it was before the advent of radio, television and internet weather reports; all of which can help workers choose the appropriate clothing.
But even with minute-by-minute weather updates, winter weather is still unpredictable. Conditions at this time of year and through spring can fluctuate rapidly. Thinking about how to dress from head to toe might help keep you warmer — and safer — on the job.
Major improvements in textiles have made it easier to dress for severe weather. Although some of the latest fabrics are more costly than the standard cotton long johns, it’s worth spending money on clothing that can keep you both warm and safe. Wool has come back into favor as a cold-weather fabric, and while modern woolen clothing is much thinner than what our forebears wore, it’s just as warm. Synthetic fabrics have also been improved, and work well alone or in combination with wool.
The majority of core body heat is held in the torso, so consider that part of the body first when selecting cold-weather clothing. While heat is held in the core, the extremities are often the first part of the body to feel cold, so it’s also important to select appropriate head, hand and footwear.
Layering is the key to staying warm. Dress from the inside out, starting with a soft base layer against the skin. No matter what the temperature, outdoor work often results in perspiration. Prolonged moisture against the skin results in loss of body heat and a clammy feeling, and can eventually lead to severe chilling. The base layer should allow free movement without bulkiness, and have good wicking ability to draw moisture away from the skin.
Next is the insulating layer, which is important because it helps maintain overall body warmth. Pants, shirts, sweaters, vests and similar clothing are all insulating layers. This layer should fit well without being too tight, and allow free movement without binding. Many outdoor workers choose insulated or lined pants for moderately cold weather, or rely on lightweight long underwear worn under pants. Almost all outdoor workers have a selection of vests suitable for various weather conditions. Vests are often the key to the insulating layer, and are easy to add or remove for changing weather conditions. Down-filled clothing is an ideal lightweight insulator, and can provide valuable warmth for the core.
The outer, or shell layer is the one that ties everything together, helps hold heat and protect against cold, snow, wind or rain. Many outdoor workers choose insulated coveralls for this layer to prevent heat loss around the lower section of the core. Insulated bibs combined with a good jacket are also a good option, especially if weather starts out cold and warms up during the day.
Head wear for outdoor workers can be a very personal choice, and in many cases, cold weather is the only force that will convince loyal ball cap wearers to don a hat that provides more protection. Anything worn on the head should allow free movement of the head so there’s no loss of vision when the head is turned.
If your outdoor work requires a hard hat, choose an insulating liner that doesn’t interfere with the fit and comfort of the hard hat. Fleece liners are fairly thin yet warm, and should work well under a hard hat. Be aware that headwear that’s too snug can easily cause a headache, and too much head coverage may result in perspiration.
Low humidity in winter can quickly lead to drying of exposed mucous membranes such as the nose, mouth and eyes. Weather conditions that result in dry or watery eyes can potentially impede vision and result in a safety hazard. Whether or not the task requires PPE for the eyes, it’s a good idea to wear goggles or a mask to prevent eyes from becoming dry or watery.
For safety, avoid clothing that has loose or flowing components, such as a scarf that isn’t tucked into the coat or coveralls. Be sure that any strings, such as those that help maintain a snug hood, are not dangling. Any loose or ill-fitting clothing can pose an entanglement risk, which can happen quickly when the wearer is already impeded by extra clothing.
Although it would be far easier to perform most tasks without gloves, hand protection is essential in winter. For maximum warmth, gloves should fit properly — not too tight and not too big. If the task requires a degree of dexterity, it’s extra important to wear gloves that fit properly. There are as many types of gloves as there are tasks, and most outdoor workers keep a selection of gloves with different grip surfaces, insulation, and water resistance. Make sure gloves are dry when they go on — damp gloves will quickly lead to cold fingers. Keep several spare pairs handy and ready to swap out if gloves become damp during the day.
Sock selection is often a passing thought but it’s important to wear good socks in winter. Layers or sock liners work well to provide extra warmth. Wool or wool blend socks often have built-in arch support and extra-thick soles to help keep feet warm. However, socks that are too thick or warm for weather conditions can cause feet to perspire, which quickly leads to cold feet. Socks should not be layered if the layers prevent free movement of the toes.
Shoes or boots should fit properly and be suitable for the task. In slippery conditions, it’s important that soles have sufficient grip surface. If footing is slippery or wet, boot soles should be not worn thin or slick. Many workers upsize winter boots to allow for additional sock layers. Shoes or boots should always be sized to allow the toes to wiggle freely. If possible, keep extra boots and socks nearby in case the feet become wet from water exposure or perspiration.
It’s easy to remember to stay hydrated in summer, but winter hydration is equally important. Cold weather decreases the body’s natural thirst sensation, which can quickly lead to dehydration. Dehydration as low as one percent can lead to decreased cognitive function, reduced concentration and slower reaction time; all of which can pose a significant safety risk to the worker and others in the work area. Although a hot cup of coffee or tea might seem like the answer to bone-chilling cold, caffeine constricts blood vessels and accelerates thirstiness. Water or electrolyte beverages at room temperature are the best option for preventing dehydration.