Cold Weather Stress: How to Protect Workers This Winter

Here in Midwest, you’d think we would be well prepared and take precautions for cold weather stress. But when you’ve got a job to do, either indoors or outdoors, you may not be paying attention to weather conditions or symptoms. Cold stress can be particularly dangerous and set in rather quickly–leading to discomfort and in some cases even severe injuries, illnesses, or death. Not only that but there are several factors that make for surprisingly cold conditions. That includes both wind and dampness. Even temperatures in the 50s teamed up with wind along with rain can lead to dangerous conditions for outside workers.

What is Cold Stress?

Cold stress happens as skin temperature declines and over time the internal body temperature. As this happens, the body can no longer warm itself resulting in serious cold-related injuries. These include chilblains, trench foot, frostbite, and hypothermia.

  • Chilblains happen due to repeated skin exposure from temperatures just above freezing to as high as 60 degrees. This exposure damages the groups of small blood vessels near the surface of the skin. The damage is permanent causing itching and redness as well as possible blisters and ulceration in severe cases. Firstaid includes warming the skin slowly while avoiding scratching. Corticosteroid creams can be used to relieve the itching.
  • Trench Foot results from prolonged exposure to both wet and cold conditions. It doesn’t take much cold either, just 60 degrees can bring about trench foot when feet are constantly wet. The symptoms include numbness, leg cramps, tingling pain, reddened skin along with blisters or ulcers and bleeding under the skin. First aid is removing shoes and wet socks, drying the feet and avoiding walking so as not to cause further damage.
  • Frostbite happens typically with ears, nose, fingers, toes, cheeks and chin when they are exposed to freezing temperatures. The symptoms are reduced blood flow, numbness, aching and tingling or stinging. First aid is to get to a warm area as soon as possible. Soak the area in warm but not hot water. It takes slow warming to recover properly. Do not use heating pads and do not massage the area.
  • Hypothermia is when the body uses up all its stored energy and can’t produce heat. It’s extremely dangerous and can lead all too quickly to death. Early symptoms include shivering, tiredness, confusion and loss of coordination. Late symptoms are blue skin, dilated pupils, slowed pulse or loss of consciousness. Treatment includes seeking immediate medical help. Remove wet clothing and move them to a warm room or shelter. The key is to warm the body starting with the core first using blankets and even electric blankets. Warm beverages can help if they are conscious.

What is Required to Protect Workers?

OSHA does not specify regulations for cold stress, but it does require employers to provide a working environment “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm, ” as specified in the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. So, employers do need to make sure the workplace is prepared for cold temperatures.

Preventing Cold Stress Injuries

OSHA begins their overview of winter weather with the words: Plan. Equip. Train. That’s superb advice for any effort to prevent injuries. Planning takes into account all the key aspects of protecting workers. First and foremost is protective clothing followed closely by correct work practices and work schedules. Then all that should be communicated if not engrained in every worker and supervisor through proper training.

Protective Clothing

Wearing the right clothing is the most important way to prevent cold stress. It’s best to avoid cotton that absorbs water and loses all insulation value. Instead, wool retains its insulation even when wet. Here are a few other recommendations.

  • Wear a hat. Up to 40% of body heat can be lost when the head is exposed to the cold. Use earmuffs or a stocking cap to keep ears protected from frostbite. Consider a knitmask to cover the face.
  • Dress in layers. This method not only provides more insulation value but can be shed as weather warms up. Ideally, the outer layer protects against wind, the middle layer provides warmth from wool or down, and the inner layer allows ventilation.
  • Use insulated boots. Make sure to wear boots that provide plenty of room so they don’t cut off circulation to your feet. Two layers of socks can not only provide insulation but also protect your feet from developing blisters.That’s good advice any time of year.
  • Wear insulated gloves. This can be a challenge at times depending on the type of work you’re doing in the cold.
  • Have a change of dry clothes available. All too often you’ll find that your clothing becomes wet, either from rain or snow or from your own perspiration. Make sure you first keep dry in order to keep warm.

Work Practices

Fluid intake in cold weather is more important than we realize. It’s easy enough to recognize you’re thirsty when the temperature nears 90 or 100 degrees. When it’s cold, it’s more difficult to realize how much fluid you’re losing. Dehydration in the cold is a real risk. Drink plenty of liquids but avoid caffeine and certainly alcohol.

It’s also wise to implement some sort of buddy system. If you’re working in pairs, it can be much easier to spot signs of cold stress. Those who are experiencing hypothermia may not be capable of recognizing their own symptoms as they develop. A buddy should be able to spot those symptoms and take quick action to seek help.

There are also a few things that come under the heading of“engineering controls” that can help reduce cold risk factors. They include shielding work areas from wind, using protective materials on equipment handles and using heaters to provide warmth.

Work Schedules

Care and attention should be considered when planning work schedules. For example, it’s best to schedule heavy work during the warmest parts of the day. Frequent breaks should be scheduled and then taken in areas that are out of the weather. Adjust the rate or pace of work to take into account the working temperature and the expected perspiration caused by the work. And, for sure, monitor workers to watch for signs of cold stress.

The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) developed the following Work/Warm-up Schedule for a 4-hour shift that takes air temperature and wind speed into account when scheduling work breaks and ceasing non-emergency work. It’s an excellent starting point for developing your own work schedule.

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The training for employees and supervisors needs to take in the complete range of items we’ve covered above. They include recognizing the conditions that can lead to cold stress, symptoms of cold stress, how to prevent cold stress and what to do about it. The training also needs to go over proper clothing, safe work practices, the buddy system protocol, and emergency procedures.

We Can Help All Your Workplace Safety Issues—Cold or Hot!

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In the meantime, stay safe this coming winter. We’ve also published Winter Driving Safety Tips that can always come in handy on our roads and highways.