How to prepare for working in cold weather

An industrial mechanic explains how he kept warm while working at the top of ski lift towers in extremely cold temperatures. 

Photo of a worker fixing a ski gondola

Rick Maki working on a gondola
Photo credit: Rick Maki

During the past 25 years, Rick Maki has worked far above — and far below — the ground. As a millwright, he installs, repairs, and maintains machinery and heavy equipment.

These days, Rick’s work takes him underground — 2 kilometres down a mineshaft to a science observatory. But for most of his career, he worked with machinery at ski hills. This included climbing to the top of ski lift towers, where he worked in extremely cold temperatures.

I contacted Rick to learn more about his work in the cold, after I read a WorkSafeBC news release reminding employers and workers to take precautions when working in cold weather.

“I’ve spent a couple of decades in the snow and experienced it all: sun, wind, rain, frostbite, windburn, vertigo in white-outs,” he says. He adds that extreme cold and heat call for some of the same solutions. “When it’s scorching hot outside, you need to take regular breaks, stay hydrated, and try to limit exposed skin. It’s similar in cold weather.”

Dressing for cold stress

Here’s what Rick suggests for cold-weather work clothing:

  • Hard-hat liner
  • Waterproof workboots with composite toe caps (not steel)
  • Merino wool base layer
  • Layers of thin clothing
  • Waterproof, windproof jacket
  • Mittens, not gloves (if possible)

Choose a hard hat that’s manufacturer-approved for use with a liner — and don’t use winter liners that contain metal or other materials that can conduct electricity under Class G or E headwear.

One factor that can lead to cold stress is wet clothing from sweat or water.

“To work comfortably outside, a layering system should be applied to pants, socks, jackets, gloves, and hats,” reads this workwear bulletin from Ontario’s Workplace Safety North. It suggests starting with a wicking layer to remove moisture from skin. From there, build up to heavier and more durable fabric to keep you warm and dry.

Cold stress–related injuries

Between 2016 and 2020, WorkSafeBC reported 56 claims for injuries related to cold stress. “The most common cold-weather injury is frostbite, which can occur quickly in extreme temperatures, especially when wind or wet clothing are factors,” notes the agency’s recent news release. “Cold stress can also lead to hypothermia, which can be fatal. Hypothermia occurs when the body loses more heat than it produces.”

Read more from WorkSafeBC about the risks of cold stress and how to reduce those risks.

Thanks to Rick for answering all my questions.

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