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Working in Cold Weather

(information excerpted from Center for Disease Control and Prevention cold stress article)

Workers who work in cold environments may be at risk of cold stress. Not surprisingly extreme cold weather is a dangerous situation that can bring on health emergencies in susceptible people, such as those without shelter, outdoor workers, and those who work in an area that is poorly insulated or without heat. What constitutes cold stress and its effects can vary across different areas of the country.

Types of cold related health hazards are: Hypothermia, Frostbite, Trench Foot and Chilblains.

Hypothermia – exposure to cold temperatures will cause the body to lose heat faster than it can be produced. Prolonged exposure to cold eventually uses up the body’s stored energy; resulting in hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature. Too low a body temperature affects the brain, making the person unable to think clearly or move well. This makes hypothermia particularly dangerous since a person may not know it is happening and will not be able to do anything about it. Symptoms vary depending on length of exposure.

Symptoms range from (early) shivering, fatigue , loss of coordination , confusion and disorientation to (late) no shivering, blue skin , dilated pupils, slowed pulse and breathing, loss of consciousness

  • Frostbite – an injury to the body caused by freezing. It causes a loss of feeling and color in the affected areas and can permanently damage body tissues; in severe cases it may lead to amputation. Frostbite most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or toes. Symptoms include reduced blood flow to hands and feet (fingers or toes can freeze), numbness, tingling or stinging, aching, bluish or pail, waxy skin (frostbite first-aid)
  • Trench Foot – or immersion foot, is an injury to the feet as a result of prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions. It can occur at temperatures as high as 16.5 degrees C (60 degrees F) if the feet are constantly wet. Injury happens because wet feet lose heat 25-times faster than dry feet; to prevent heat loss, the body constricts blood vessels shutting down circulation in the feet. Skin tissue begins to die because of lack of oxygen and nutrients and due to the buildup of toxic products. Symptoms include reddening of the skin, numbness, leg cramps, swelling, tingling pain, blisters or ulcers, bleeding under the skin
  • Chilblains – are caused by the skin being repeatedly exposed to temperatures ranging from just above freezing to as high as 16.5 degrees C. (60 degrees F). The cold exposure causes damage to the capillary beds (groups of small blood vessels) in the skin, typically occurring on cheeks, ears, fingers, and toes. The damage is permanent and the redness and itching will return with additional exposure.

Suggested steps for employers to protect workers are:

  • Schedule cold jobs for the warmer part of the day.
  • Reduce the physical demands of workers.
  • Use relief workers or assign extra workers for long, demanding jobs.
  • Provide warm areas for use during break periods.
  • Monitor workers who are at risk of cold stress.
  • Provide cold stress training that includes information about:
    • Worker risk
    • Prevention
    • Symptoms
    • The importance of monitoring yourself and coworkers for symptoms
    • Treatment
    • Personal protective equipment

Suggested steps for workers are:

  • Wear appropriate clothing.
    • Wear several layers of loose clothing. Layering provides better insulation.
    • Tight clothing reduces blood circulation. Warm blood needs to be circulated to the extremities.
    • When choosing clothing, be aware that some clothing may restrict movement resulting in a hazardous situation.
  • Make sure to protect the ears, face, hands and feet in extremely cold weather.
    • Boots should be waterproof and insulated.
    • Wear a hat; it will keep your whole body warmer. (Hats reduce the amount of body heat that escapes from your head.)
  • Move into warm locations during work breaks; limit the amount of time outside on extremely cold days.
  • Carry cold weather gear, such as extra socks, gloves, hats, jacket, blankets, a change of clothes and a thermos of hot liquid.
  • Avoid touching cold metal surfaces with bare skin.
  • Monitor your physical condition and that of your coworkers

Plan now for how you will address work in the upcoming winter season and make sure all managers, supervisors and employees know what your cold weather work policies and procedures are. Follow this link to CCOHS for additional information regarding working in the cold.



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