Cold storage facilities can be dangerous places to work. But with the right training, equipment and precautions, they don’t have to be. Whether you work in cold facilities, like cool rooms or temperature controlled storage facilities, or you have staff that do, it’s vital that you understand the risks associated with this kind of work.
Prolonged exposure to cold temperatures can do a lot of harm to the human body. Short-term problems can include reduced fine-motor skills and numbing in the extremities. This can lead to workplace accidents like fumbling and dropping heavy items and even injuries that may not be noticed until later.
Long-term effects can include an increased risk of arthritis, as well as muscle and tissue damage. The human body doesn’t function well in cold temperatures and, as a result, normal movements in cold temperatures may cause damage to muscle, tissue and bones.
In extreme cases, prolonged exposure to severe cold can lead to frostbite or hypothermia. Frostbite may require amputation to deal with damaged tissue. Hypothermia can cause workers to become unconscious and in extreme cases can cause death.
WorkSafe Victoria provides comprehensive guidelines for working in cold storage facilities. However, let’s have a look at some of the key safety points.
Train and Supervise
Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, employers are legally obliged to provide a safe working environment, and this includes cold storage facilities.
Proper training and supervision is essential to ensure the safety of anyone working in cold environments. Before anyone starts any cold storage work, they should be taken through proper induction training. This should include an overview of the workspace and the safety procedures, the type of work and the risks involved, procedures for mitigating risk, information about protective clothing and equipment, and how to safely work in the cold to avoid injury and accident.
While workers should be trusted to manage risks appropriately, supervision is still important. Supervisors can advise on best management of new issues that arise, as well as checking in with workers to ensure they are managing risks properly. The level of supervision often depends on the workplace hazards, level of exposure and integrity of risk control measures in place.
Safe Time Limits
Since the risks associated with working in the cold will increase over time, clear safe time limits should be in place for anyone working in cold environments. The safe time limit will differ depending on the temperature of the facility. The coldest environments, like industrial freezers, should have shorter time limits than temperature controlled warehouse facilities.
Time limits should also include rest periods in designated warm spaces to allow employees’ to warm up again.
For additional benefits, there should be warm beverages to drink and warm food to eat. Food with higher calorie counts are best. Otherwise, the body may burn away stores of fat, making it harder for a worker to stay warm.
Personal Protective Equipment
Anyone working in cold storage facilities should have access to the appropriate personal protective equipment. This should be provided by the workplace and should be appropriately maintained.
This equipment can include jackets and pants, gloves, boots, and headwear. Clothing should fit properly (tight clothing doesn’t insulate as well) and be loose enough over joints to allow for comfortable movement. The clothing should be adjustable at openings like the neck and wrists and should provide adequate ventilation. Clothing should also be high-visibility (reflective, fluorescent or both), water resistant and durable.
Boot should also be insulated, water resistant and properly fitting. Since cold rooms can be wet and slippery, boots should also be anti-slip. Impact resistant boots may be necessary for operating machinery or handling heavy loads.
Gloves should be fully insulated, well fitting and waterproof. You must ensure that workers are able to do all necessary tasks without having to remove the gloves.
Since you lose most of your heat through your head, proper headwear is essential in cold working conditions. A combination of a knitted woolen beanie and waterproof hood works well in most situations. However, you want to ensure that the hood doesn’t obscure the peripheral vision.
Provide Emergency Training and Equipment
Safety measures should reflect the additional risks present in a cold working environment. Ensure that supervisors are properly trained to deal with the risks of cold climate working. This may include knowing how to recognise and treat signs of frostbite or hypothermia. You should also have cold environment first aid kits on hand, as well as adequate supplies of dry clothing, blankets, towels and heat packs available in case of emergencies.
Cold rooms and other cooling and freezing technology need to be regularly maintained to ensure everything is in safe working order. Staff should be familiar with the regular maintenance tasks and trained to spot any potential issues.
While a cold environment presents more risks than a traditional workplace, it can still be made safe. Essentially, workers need to understand the risks and how to manage them. This can be done through proper training, including what to wear, when to take breaks and how to use equipment safely.