Ergonomics and work in the cold

by Kristina Zucchiatti

It’s time to give a warm “welcome back” to our winter clothing. Although we all tend to complain about the cold, some Ontarians have to wear “Arctic” outdoor clothing (jackets, boots, and gloves) all year round! (And those of us who eat ice cream are grateful that they do!)

When we are tasked with a design, or redesign project, we refer to design guidelines to make recommendations that will optimise performance and comfort. When designing equipment that will be used in a cold environment, we consider how heavier clothing and PPE may affect workers when performing tasks. How does cold affect design guidelines, strength, and cognitive ability?

First, let’s look at the effects of cold on the body. The body’s ideal core temperature is 37 degrees C, and if that temperature drops, our bodies respond by shivering (our muscles working to generate heat), and by redirecting blood flow away from the extremities (hands and feet get cold). If you’ve ever been outside in the dead of winter for a long period of time, or maybe in a hockey arena for a long game, you may have experienced the discomfort associated with cold temperatures, or the loss of dexterity and sensitivity in your hands (ie, when tying up a 5 year old’s skate laces, or securing the helmet chin strap). You may also have experienced the effects mentally, through reduced alertness (you jump in your seat when the puck hits the glass in front of you because you weren’t prepared), fatigue, or lethargy. In a work environment, these physical and cognitive changes may have more serious consequences; therefore, it’s crucial to follow guidelines to protect workers exposed to cold environments.

What do guidelines say? Ergonomic design guidelines, specifically working heights, clearance and work envelopes, tools, and gloves, should accommodate the equipment worn in cold environments.

For example:
1. Boots may increase the height of workers.
2. A passage width for a single large male increases by 10 cm to accommodate heavy, bulky Arctic clothing. (The same goes for the hand and arm. Heavier/bulkier gloves increase the minimum clearance for the hand and arm.)
3. Tools should be chosen to require less force in cold environments, and should have an appropriate hand clearance for gloves, and
4. Gloves should be provided in a range of sizes. (Gloves that are too small or too large reduce worker grip strength and circulation.)

Writing about cold environments, makes me think about an episode from The Big Bang Theory. (FYI- I’m a huge fan, and I’m very sad that this is their final season!) The episode was about four of the main characters (Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, and Raj) getting ready for their 3-month North Pole expedition. They decide to use a walk-in freezer to acclimatize themselves to the harsh conditions of the North Pole, and use various tools to mock the tasks they will be required to perform. Throughout the “training session”, you witness some of the effects that cold has on them, and by the end, they come to the realisation that they could have assembled the tools they needed outside the walk-in freezer, and then installed them in the cold environment. A brilliant example of ergonomic process design!

When working in cold environments, also consider footwear. Visit a previous blog about winter treads and which are best for snowy or icy conditions.

Stay tuned for more about our Ergo Design Guidelines course in 2019, to help you and your workplace avoid these issues and many more. You can register early, here. (And go watch that episode!)

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