Baby It’s Cold Outside

By Sue Yost — December 05, 2013

When the mercury drops, it’s time to rethink your outdoor work practices.

Time is flying. Just yesterday, it was May and I was writing about staying cool. Now, it’s all about keeping warm. The full impact of winter will hit us soon, and all the things that we forgot about during the summer months will be upon us: skiing, sledding, snowmobiles (toddies by the fire) and pretty landscapes with sparkling snow –but also frozen fingers and toes, slippery roads, icy props and wings, cold starts and sluggish fluids, and very, very short daylight hours. Short days can sap energy and motivation as you get up, drive to work, and go home in the dark, and never see the sun unless you are lucky enough to catch a glimpse during lunch or a smoke break. Time drags, and snow is welcomed as it reflects the little light that is available.

But there are measures you can take to make winter more manageable. For example, even if you brownbag your lunch, try to get outside for a little while and enjoy the daylight; every minute helps. Bear in mind that cold affects us all differently. Some enjoy it, some don’t. Conditions that will cause you to feel the cold are:

–    Prolonged exposure to cold conditions (everyone’s tolerance is different)
–    Standing or lying in cold water for a long time (also wet snow, rain, wet clothing)
–    Standing or lying immobile in cool air or on a cold surface (on wings or fuselage, under the aircraft)
–    Medications or other health problems (heart conditions, diabetes, etc.) that can affect body heat
or even a person’s ability to detect changes in body temperature. This is especially true as we age.
–    Circulatory system disorders (often caused by previous cold emergencies)
–    A thin body or low body fat (some of us don’t have that problem!)
–    Hunger (lots of small snacks work better than one big meal)
–    Fatigue
–   Alcohol (still in your system from last night counts too!)
–   Cigarette smoking (inhibits oxygen circulation)
–   Dehydration (drink lots, but stay away from caffeine or alcohol)
–   Periods of comparative inactivity immediately following physical exertion

The usual and obvious things that we associate with winter are the physical limitations on activity, mobility, and accessibility to all things outside. Digging, scraping, slugging through drifts; or at night, after a sunny day of snow thawing on the tarmac, and the ice patches that now form and make movement (yours and the aircraft’s) treacherous, are all part of a Canadian winter. (This is where we need to remember those toddies by the fire!)

Prop wash and jet blast, always hazardous, will pick up and throw icy particles like little frozen missiles, that cut and embed themselves into frozen flesh, and can turn that postcard, sparkly snowdrift into a blizzard that cuts visibility, and deposits that postcard picture into the hangar in no time flat.

Apart from the more apparent risks at work, there are also dangers in the basic act of getting to work and home again. Driving is definitely a risky business, especially in winter conditions, but for many of you the danger is not over when you get to work. You may have different locations that you need to access during the day, maybe offices in one building, the hangar at the airport, or sub bases around the city or region, or even picking up from suppliers. If this is part of your work day, your employer should ensure that you have had winter driving training, and you need to ensure that you have an emergency car kit, and winter supplies kit in the back of your vehicle.

I live in southwest Ontario, and always encourage people to remember the storm from a few years ago that stranded motorists on Highway 402 for two days. Think of what you would need in the event of a similar circumstance, pack it into a duffle bag in your vehicles (both work and personal), and leave it there for the winter months. Inside the duffle there should be an extra toque, scarf, gloves, work socks, granola bars, candles, matches, Kleenex (for TP) large garbage bags for raincoats, etcetera.

Clothing should be adjusted for the weather. Layers of clothes that will protect you from cold, wind, and moisture are the best, and don’t forget a hat that covers your ears (toques are great) scarves (just try one) gloves, rain/snow pants, and good boots. How many of you suffer from cold feet, even with your boots on? Here is a tip: leave your boots out in a cold area, (porch or unheated mudroom) before putting them on. When you put warm boots on, your feet sweat, and chill easily.  If your boots are cold, your cold feet stay drier, thus staying warmer for longer. (Convoluted thinking, but it works.) Keep a couple pairs of old gloves with the fingertips cut out so that you can work in the cold with some dexterity while still keeping most of the hand warm.

There are various degrees of exposure to prepare for. Frost nip is surface freezing: the skin will turn white and waxy, and will produce a burning sensation when warming. Frostbite is deeper: a larger area will be white, or blue, and the flesh is now hard and frozen (thaw slowly and gently).

In severe cases, flesh may be dark brown or black where the blood vessels have frozen and burst under the skin. If you suffer from this and may have to spend time outside before getting to a hospital, do NOT thaw the frozen part. If you thaw, and it refreezes, there will be irreparable damage. Leave the part frozen until it can be thawed by medical professionals, who can save as much as possible.

Cold will also impair your judgment, and you will start to make irrational and irrelevant decisions. This is not the time to be faced with critical choices about the aircraft. What about that washer that you just dropped into the snow? Will you dig for it with fingers that are already stiff and cold, or just say “forget it” and put the nut on without it?

Always use eye protection around a helicopter that has the blades moving. Eyeballs are mostly liquid, and can freeze when exposed to excessively cold temperatures caused by wind chill created by spinning blades.

Here are some of the signs of hypothermia as it progresses:

–    Shivering
–    Clumsiness or lack of coordination (there’s that dropped nut!)
–    Inability to pay attention for extended periods of time
–    Slurred speech or mumbling
–    Confusion or difficulty thinking (not good when making crucial decisions)
–    Poor decision-making, such as trying to remove warm clothes
–    Drowsiness or very low energy
–    Apathy or lack of concern about one’s condition (safety will suffer)
–    Progressive loss of consciousness
–    Weak pulse
–    Slow, shallow breathing

As long as the person is shivering and complaining they are cold, do NOT massage or rub them to warm them. You can help by giving warm liquids, placing warm packs (any bottles or containers filled with hot water and wrapped) around the neck, under armpits, in the groin, and be gentle if you have to move them. Try not to let them help you or walk around. Circulation needs to start slowly, but blood flowing back to the vital organs from arms and legs is cold and will drop their core temperature even further.

Also, keep in mind:

–    Move the person out of the cold, very gently; if this is not possible, protect them from wind, cover their head and insulate their body from the cold ground (use blankets, tarps, plastic sheeting, garbage bags)
–    Remove wet clothing. Replace with a dry covering, preferably warm. Cover the person’s head.
–    Warm the person’s body by removing clothing and lying next to the person, making skin-to-skin contact. Then cover both bodies with a blanket or get into a sleeping bag if possible.
–    Do not give alcohol because it lowers the body’s ability to retain heat. If the person is alert and is able to swallow, have them drink warm, non-alcoholic beverages. Do not offer liquids if vomiting.
–    Do not leave the person alone. Stay with them at all times.
–    Continually monitor breathing. If the person’s breathing stops, start cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) immediately, if you are trained.
–   If the person has stopped shivering or complaining they are cold, even though they are still conscious. This is now a 911 emergency; the person needs medical help. Take steps above to warm them while you wait.

Most of this is common sense, and hopefully, most of you are lucky enough to work in conditions where you can get out of the cold periodically to stay warm.

Knowledge of, and treatment for, hypothermia is crucial to those of you working in isolated areas, or outside for long periods of time (or short periods in extremely cold temps). Pay attention to your body, and what it is telling you. Cold, at the very least, is uncomfortable. Extreme cold can have long lasting effects on your circulation, and severe cold can kill. Know the signs, take time to stay warm, and get through winter safely.


About The Author

Sue Yost

SUE YOST is the owner and principal instructor for HPA Consultants, based in southwest Ontario. HPA conducts Human Factors training, initial and update, and also for pilots doing elementary work, and QA workshops, both classroom and online. HPA offers CARs courses, CRM, and SMS, First Aid and WHMIS. The company has added ‘Effective Auditing,’ a two-day course for anyone conducting internal or external audits, or responsible for the implementation of quality management procedures of an aviation company. Contact HPA Consultants at (519) 674-5050 or

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