Amidst this season of below zero temperatures and freezing wind chills, OSHA offers their recommendations for cold weather safety protection and preventing cold stress. What exactly is cold stress? Cold stress happens by driving down the skin temperature and internal temperatures. When the body is unable to warm itself, serious cold-related illnesses and injuries can occur and permanent tissue damage and/or death may result.
If you work in an industry whose members are regularly exposed to the harsh winter elements or low temperatures, such as outdoor agriculture, construction, etc. this cold weather safety guide is for you. It is vital to educate yourself and your workforce on the dangers of cold stress and ways to prevent it.
Common Types of Cold Stress:
- Normal body temperature (98.6°F) drops to 95°F or less
- Mild Symptoms: alert but shivering
- Moderate to Severe Symptoms: shivering stops; confusion; slurred speech; heart rate/breathing slow; loss of consciousness; death
What to Do When a Worker Suffers from Cold Stress For Hypothermia:
- Call 911 immediately in an emergency
- To prevent further heat loss
- Move the worker to a warm place
- Change to dry clothes
- Cover the body (including the head and neck) with blankets, and with something to block the cold (e.g., tarp, garbage bag). Do not cover the face
- If medical help is more than 30 minutes away:
- Give warm, sweetened drinks if alert (no alcohol)
- Apply heat packs to the armpits, sides of chest, neck, and groin. Call 911 for additional rewarming instructions
- Body tissues freeze, e.g., hands and feet. Can occur at temperatures above freezing, due to wind chill. May result in amputation.
- Symptoms: numbness, reddened skin develops gray/ white patches, feels firm/hard, and may blister.
What to Do When a Worker Suffers from Cold Stress For Frostbite:
- Follow the recommendations “For Hypothermia”
- Do not rub the frostbitten area
- Avoid walking on frostbitten feet
- Do not apply snow/water. Do not break blisters
- Loosely cover and protect the area from contact
- Do not try to rewarm the area unless directed by medical personnel
Trench Foot (also known as Immersion Foot)
- Non-freezing injury to the foot, caused by lengthy exposure to wet and cold environments. Can occur at air temperature as high as 60°F, if feet are constantly wet
- Symptoms: redness, swelling, numbness, and blisters
What to Do When a Worker Suffers from Cold Stress For Trench Foot:
- Remove wet shoes/socks; air dry (in a warm area); keep affected feet elevated and avoid walking. Get medical attention
Dressing for Cold Weather Safety
Dressing improperly, wet clothing/skin and exhaustion are all risk factors that can lead to cold stress. Wearing at least three layers of loose-fitting clothing provides better insulation: An inner layer of wool, silk or synthetic to keep moisture away from the body, a middle layer of wool or synthetic to provide insulation even when wet and an outer wind and rain protection layer that allows some ventilation to prevent overheating. Tight-fitting clothing has the opposite effect and can restrict blood flow to your extremities.
In addition, wearing a hat or hood can help keep your whole body warmer by reducing the amount of body heat that escapes from your head. A knit mask used will best serve to protect the face and mouth, if needed. Lastly, insulated and/or water-resistant gloves and boots to protect the hands and feet will ensure that you are covered from head-to-toe!
Be Aware, Plan Ahead
It’s important to be aware of cold stress symptoms and to monitor yourself and co-workers. Here are a handful best-practice, winter workplace habits that you should adopt each cold season in order to protect yourself and your co-workers:
- Recognize the environmental and workplace conditions that may be dangerous
- Encourage workers to wear proper clothing for cold, wet and windy conditions, including layers that can be adjusted to changing conditions
- Be sure workers in extreme conditions take a frequent short break in warm dry shelters to allow their bodies to warm up
- Try to schedule work for the warmest part of the day
- Avoid exhaustion or fatigue because energy is needed to keep muscles warm
- Use the buddy system – work in pairs so that one worker can recognize danger signs
- Drink warm, sweet beverages (sugar water, sports-type drinks) and avoid drinks with caffeine (coffee, tea, sodas or hot chocolate) or alcohol
- Eat warm, high-calorie foods such as hot pasta dishes
- Remember, workers face increased risks when they take certain medications, are in poor physical condition or suffer from illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension or cardiovascular disease
Learn More, Get the Best Cold Weather Safety Protection Gear and Equipment