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Swine & U Column: Working safely in cold weather

By Diane DeWitte, UMN Extension Swine Educator
Originally printed in The LAND - as January 6, 2023 Swine & U column

This winter of 2022-2023 has already provided a wide array of thrills and chills! Keeping the driveways clear, the water flowing, the power & heat on, and the pigs safe and fed is a daily challenge during Minnesota’s winters. Our friends at the Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety & Health (UMASH) center offer this discussion about the dangers of cold weather outside work.


Cold temperatures pose serious threats to a person’s health, leading to frostbite, hypothermia, or trench foot, which occurs when the feet have been exposed to water for too long. Symptoms of hypothermia may include lack of coordination, confusion, slurring, drowsiness, or slowed breathing. Signs of frostbite and trench foot include skin that is numb, swollen, firm, blistered, red, or gray.


  • Can you complete indoor tasks and leave outdoor tasks for a warmer day?
  • Do you prioritize safety? Add more breaks, keep areas warm, provide warm food and drink, periodically check on employees, and train employees about the cold.
  • Snow makes it difficult to see roads and bodies of water. Do bright signs or fences mark roads and water?
  • Do you have heating systems to keep employees and livestock warm? Are they safe from fires and in well-ventilated areas?
  • Does everyone work in pairs?
  • Compared to warmer days, is there a higher ratio of people to tasks, with fewer tasks and more employees?
  • Does work begin earlier to avoid being outside at night?
  • Do you use sand, kitty litter or deicer on slippery areas? These may be less effective as it gets colder.
  • Do you wear the following when you go out in the cold? Layers (inner: polyester or polypropylene, middle: wool or down, outer: water-resistant nylon), hat with flaps, hood, flexible gloves (inner layer and water-resistant outer layer), facemask, boots (not steel-toed) with cleats or slip-on grips, socks with breathing room in boots, and sunglasses.
  • Do you immediately remove and replace anything wet?
  • Do you carry a safety toolbox with the following items? Headlamp, flashlight, two-way radio, first aid kit, pocket knife, thermometer, dry pair of clothes, blanket, high-protein snacks, and a sweet, warm beverage.


UMN Extension Educator Emily Kreckelberg and colleagues at UMASH offer these pointers for dressing to head outside for chores and livestock work in the Minnesota winter.

Layer Up- Dressing in multiple layers will wick sweat off your skin and trap heat to help you stay warm throughout workday. Follow the steps below from head to toe to keep you safe, warm, and dry for working in the winter.

Stay Dry- Carry an extra pair of mittens and socks to replace ones that may become damp or wet. Go indoors when available to warm up and dry off. Replace any wet or damp clothing with a dry set.

Avoid Cotton - Avoid cotton as the first layer. Clothing next to your skin should pull the sweat or moisture away – keeping you drier and warmer. Use sweat-wicking material like synthetic, wool, silk, or bamboo fibers for socks, underwear, and base layers.

Insulation is Key - Just as we insulate our homes, insulated clothing will keep you warmer. Insulated hats, gloves, boots, overalls, and jackets offer another layer of protection against cold and wind. Insulation traps warm air close to the skin, and prevents heat from escaping.


  • The layer next to your skin should be a synthetic or wool top and bottom, such as long underwear. Look for labels that state “moisture-wicking” or “sweat-wicking.”
  • The second layer should be lightweight and insulating, such as a thin wool sweater, light fleece jacket, or shirt.
  • For the third layer, use a heavier fleece or wool sweater, which will trap heat in the body.
  • The last layer should help keep the wind and water out. Look for labels that mention waterproof or GoreTex. A nice added feature is a storm placket, which adds another layer of protection behind the zipper.
  • Cover the head with a warm hat that fully covers your ears. Consider a neck gaiter or face mask to protect the neck and lower face from the elements.
  • Mittens are warmer than gloves but not always practical for detailed work. Try wearing a thin synthetic glove inside a mitten. This will allow you to remove your mittens for more technical work while not exposing bare skin to the cold. Keep another pair of mittens ready in case they become damp or wet.
  • A thin synthetic sock with a wool sock over the top allows moisture to be wicked from the feet, and the wool will keep your feet warm. Have an extra pair of socks ready in case they become damp or wet, and check that your toes have enough room to wiggle in an insulated boot.


Blizzard Warning: Issued for sustained or gusty winds of 35 mph or more, and falling or blowing snow creating visibilities at or below 1/4 mile; these conditions should persist for at least 3 hours.

Wind Chill Advisory: Issued when wind chill temperatures are expected to be a significant inconvenience to life with prolonged exposure, and, if caution is not exercised, could lead to hazardous exposure.

Wind Chill Warning: Issued when wind chill temperatures are expected to be hazardous to life within several minutes of exposure.

Winter Storm Warning: Issued when hazardous winter weather in the form of heavy snow, blizzard conditions, heavy freezing rain, or heavy sleet is imminent or occurring. Winter Storm Warnings are usually issued 12 to 24 hours before the event is expected to begin.

Winter Storm Watch: Alerts the public to the possibility of a blizzard, heavy snow, heavy freezing rain, or heavy sleet. Winter Storm watches are usually issued 12 to 48 hours before the beginning of a Winter Storm.

Winter Weather Advisories: Issued for accumulations of snow, freezing rain, freezing drizzle, and sleet which will cause significant inconveniences and, if caution is not exercised, could lead to life threatening situations.

Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)


From retired UMN Extension Engineer Kevin Janni, the issue of heavy snow on the farm can be addressed in these ways.

Get the deepest snow off a roof as soon as possible - Generally, you will have some time between a large snowfall event and possible structural failure.

Check for danger signs
Before beginning to remove snow or enter a building with excessive snow on the roof, look for signs of building damage and the beginning of failure.
  • Look at the sidewalls to see if there are any bulges or indications that knee braces have failed.
  • Look at the roof line to see if it is still straight.
  • When entering a building with excessive snow, look at the ceiling, open trusses and walls for indications of damage or failure.
  • If there are indications of building damage or failure, do not climb onto the roof or enter the building while the snow is on the roof.
Snow removal methods
  • Hire a professional if possible.
  • Get up on the roof and shovel off the snow. There is a danger of falling off the roof when working on a snow-covered and icy roof. Use ladders, safety ropes and take necessary precautions.
  • Use snow rakes or specialty tools that can be used from the ground or from portable scaffolding.
    • Use extreme caution when working near overhead electrical power lines.
    • Avoid excessive scraping on the roof or trying to chip off the ice. These practices can damage the roof and lead to a leaky roof.
  • If the weather is not too cold, hot water or some other heat source can be used to melt snow and ice.
  • Warm the inside of the building sufficiently with large heaters to melt the ice layer and then wait for the snow and ice to slide off.
    • A lot of heat is necessary for even a moderately-sized building, and the building must be an open-trussed structure (no flat ceiling) and have an uninsulated metal roof.
    • Be careful to prevent large chunks of ice and snow that slide off the roof from falling on people, animals or equipment.
    • Do not put heaters in an attic of buildings with flat ceilings because of the fire and carbon monoxide danger and you could create ice dams along the building's eaves.
It is difficult to say how much snow or ice is safe because it depends on the building design and the snow or ice weight. In most cases, agricultural buildings will have an excessive snow load if there are more than four to six feet of snow on the roof.

Excessive snow and ice followed with cold temperatures can create excessive snow loads. You should monitor the snow load situation on your agricultural buildings and take appropriate action. Check high risks areas and, if you need to remove snow, please be extremely careful.

Diane DeWitte is a UMN Extension Swine Educator based in Mankato. She can be reached at Emily Kreckelberg can be reached at Additional UMASH cold weather safety resources can be found at
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