From Boston to Bismarck, this has been a bitter winter. According to The Weather Channel, the arctic blast that hit much of the nation in late December and early January was a record-setter for places as far-ranging as Bangor, Maine, and Duluth, Minnesota. Buffalo smashed records for cold and so did Green Bay and Lincoln, Nebraska. Another thing all of these frigid locations had in common: there were tree care crews out working in spite of the cold.
Those with desk jobs may not appreciate how important clothing choices can be during the cold winter months. To be safe and productive when working outside in freezing temperatures, the right apparel is essential, says arborist Tait Sala, co-founder of Cohen & Master Tree and Shrub Services in Toronto, Canada, where they’re used to the cold. “And you’ve got to get it right from the beginning of the day. If you wait until you’re already cold, it’s too late,” Sala says.
The company covers winter clothing in its safety meetings as the cold weather approaches, as well as in its policies and procedures. “The right clothing almost becomes part of your PPE, because you need to stay warm,” he says. “We talk about things such as not having cotton as your base layer, but instead using wicking fabrics.” Because, believe it or not, there’s just as much sweating that happens in the winter as the summer, even if it’s not as obvious. For that reason, Sala says crews are also reminded to keep drinking fluids throughout the day in the winter, just as they do on a hot summer day.
Sala believes in wearing a lot of layers, with the goal being to remove layers before sweating becomes excessive and putting layers back on once you cool down.
“Generally, beefing up on layers — things that are breathable — is important,” says Nick Bonner, general manager with TreeStuff.com, which sells a wide range of clothing designed for cold-weather use. “The more that you combine thin layers, the better off you are going to be,” he says. This allows for warmth without bulk.
And bulk can be nearly as big an enemy as the cold, because it increases fatigue,” says Sala. “When you’re working, you’re fighting that cold the whole time and you’re also wearing a lot more layers, and that can make the work more challenging.” Everything is just more cumbersome, he points out. “And working around equipment, like a chipper or an aerial lift, you need to be sure that your clothing isn’t getting snagged on moving parts. So there are extra considerations as far as safety when you’ve got all that extra clothing on,” Sala says.
Cohen & Master provides certain winter outerwear for its employees (as well as boxes of hand- and foot-warmer packs), believing that the investment will pay off with more comfortable, productive workers. “We issue certain winter-specific clothing, such as a winter jacket and winter mitts,” Sala says. The specialized leather mittens group three fingers together, but have separate thumb and throttle finger sections to aid in running a chainsaw. “And they have a wool liner, which is good because it’s the hands that often suffer — we’re always having to grab things on the job, like a pole pruner or rigging equipment,” he says. “And we also suggest that each crew member takes out multiple pairs of gloves and mittens to help get you through the day, because your hands are often getting wet and that way you’re still productive at 3 o’clock.”
Feet are another key source of concern in the winter. Sala says that steel-toed boots can be particularly problematic in the winter, because that steel protection represents a frozen piece of metal right next to the toes. “Those kinds of boots can be extremely cold,” he says. Fortunately, Sala notes, there are now a number of winter-specific boots that use a composite material instead of steel for protection.
“One additional key piece of equipment, we’ve found, is some sort of balaclava under your hard hat. That way your head is fully covered, along with the back of your neck and part of your face,” Sala says.
TreeStuff.com’s Bonner says that popular items when the cold weather hits include winter gloves that are waterproof and/or insulated. “We sell quite a few of the Notch Arctic ArborLast gloves — those are very popular. As well as the Atlas ThermaFit gloves,” he says. As far as socks, Darn Tough winter socks are big sellers. Arborwear Double Thick hoodies have long been a common choice for tree care workers in the winter, he notes. “And we sell quite a few outwear-style jackets from Arborwear and Pfanner,” Bonner says. Unlike some brands that make clothing for general use, these types of items are specifically made for arborists to work in, he explains. “You’re going to get a higher level of mobility.”