Whether indoors or outdoors, workers exposed to cold temperatures are at risk of cold stress. Without the proper personal protective equipment (PPE), cold stress can lead to serious injury. OSHA reports cold stress can even be fatal so being aware of the risks and preparing ahead of time is critical to keeping workers safe on the job in cold weather conditions.
What Is Cold Stress?
Ideally, our normal body (“core”) temperature should stay around 98.6° through the process of thermoregulation. However, four particular factors can contribute to a drop in our core temperatures, resulting in cold stress:
- Wind speed
- Cold water
- Cold temperatures
When our bodies are exposed to cold conditions for extended periods of time, we begin losing heat faster and our bodies must work harder to keep our core temperatures at a safe level.
Who Is At Risk of Cold Stress?
Workers who are not adequately protected from the cold are at risk of developing cold stress.
Experts report that freezing or below-freezing conditions are not the only environments that can lead to cold stress. Temperatures as high as the 50s can cause cold stress when combined with rain and/or high wind and hypothermia – a symptom of cold stress – statistically happens more often in the Spring and Fall than wintertime.
Common occupations at risk of cold stress include:
- Construction workers
- Snow crews
- Drivers/Transit workers
- Emergency responders
- Utility workers
It is important for employers and employees to be aware of the symptoms and to know how to respond in the event that symptoms arise to avoid potentially fatal consequences.
Cold Stress Conditions
OSHA reports three of the most common cold-related conditions are:
- Trench Foot
When actively engaged in work, the symptoms of these conditions may be overlooked. Workers should stay vigilant for the signs of each condition for themselves as well as any others working with them. If any of these symptoms are experienced or observed, it is critical they stop what they are doing and seek the appropriate treatment.
When our core temperature falls below 95°F (35°C), we will experience hypothermia. According to OSHA, at the onset of hypothermia, symptoms will include:
- Loss of coordination
As the condition continues, advanced symptoms will include:
- Blue skin
- Dilated pupils
- Slowed pulse/respiration
- Loss of consciousness
Experts report that the most common body parts to be affected by frostbite are:
Most of us have experienced cold hands or feet and workers may be tempted to continue working with cold hands or feet, believing they are simply cold. Frostbite happens in stages and according to experts, symptoms include:
- Prickling feelings in the skin
- Discoloration of the skin
- Hard/Waxy appearance of the skin
- Joint/Muscle stiffness
- In extreme cases, blistering after being warmed up.
Also termed Immersion Foot, this condition is the result of having wet feet for extended periods of time. The CDC reports symptoms of Trench Foot include:
- Tingling/itching sensations
- Blotchy skin
- Prickling or heavy feeling of the foot
8 Tips For Avoiding Cold Stress
Employers have the responsibility of ensuring their workers are protected from the risks of working in cold environments. Training employees about the signs and symptoms of cold stress is the first step employers should take to prevent it. Here are some tips to ensure workers stay safe in cold conditions.
Layers of Clothing
OSHA suggests workers wear three layers of clothing:
- An inner layer of wool, silk, or synthetic that will wick moisture away from the body while allowing the body to hold more heat than with cotton
- Middle layer of wool or synthetic to provide insulation
- Outer layer to protect against wind and rain and allows for ventilation to prevent overheating
They suggest the clothing should be loose-fitting because tight-fitting clothes restrict blood vessels and reduce blood flow.
It is also helpful to carry extra clothing or cold-weather gear, such as blankets in case what they are wearing gets wet or otherwise compromised.
As mentioned, the most commonly affected body parts in cold environments are the extremities and head. You should be sure employees are provided with insulated gloves to keep their hands warm. Thermal-lined coated cut gloves such as our Arctic-Tuff™ or Arctic- Z™ series will protect your hands from cold weather while offering protection and comfort.
Boots should be waterproof and insulated to keep feet warm. A hat that covers the ears will reduce the amount of heat loss from your head.
Schedule Jobs Around Hazardous Weather
If possible, avoid scheduling work during particularly harsh weather or cold fronts or schedule work during the warmest part of the day.
Provide Frequent Warm Breaks
When avoiding harsh conditions is impossible, be sure employees have access to frequent, adequate warm breaks.
Implement a Buddy System
Require employees to work in pairs so they can watch for symptoms of cold stress. In extreme weather such as blizzards or low-visibility conditions, make sure each employee is protected with our HiVizGard™ safety gear and attire.
According to OSHA, certain conditions can increase an individual’s risk of cold stress. Make sure employees are in the proper physical health to tolerate harsh weather conditions and do not have such health conditions as hypertension (high blood pressure), hypothyroidism, or diabetes.
Provide Safety Measures For Employees
Make sure there are thermometers and chemical hot packs in first aid kits, as well as warm fluids to drink in the event that employees begin experiencing any cold-related conditions.
Train Employees About Cold Stress
Make sure employees understand the signs and symptoms of cold stress and are able to recognize environments that pose risks of cold stress. Be sure they know what steps to take when cold stress occurs and how to stay safe from it.
Employees may be aware of rules and regulations but fail to follow them. That’s why it is important that everyone knows them, follows them, and/or enforces them. Implementing these precautions will provide extra protection for workers to avoid work-related cold stress.