When workers are exposed to cold temperatures for long periods of time, their body temperatures can decrease to dangerous levels. Wind makes cool air even colder, making it challenging for workers to determine when they’re in danger. Cold stress can cause a variety of problems. Here’s what you need to know about cold stress and how to defend against winter injuries.
Hypothermia is defined as when normal body temperature drops to 95°F or less. When hypothermia first begins, workers may shiver, but as hypothermia becomes more severe, shivering stops and the heart rate slows down. Breathing slows as well, and confusion sets in. Eventually, the individual will lose consciousness and die.
When frostbite occurs, body tissue in the extremities (hands and feet) freezes. Symptoms include numbness, which progresses into gray or white patches on the skin, and blisters. Keep in mind that frostbite can occur in temperatures above freezing.
Cold and wet environments can also cause an injury called Trench Foot or Immersion Foot. Symptoms include redness, swelling, numbness, and eventually blisters. Trench Foot can also occur in temperatures above freezing.
How to Prevent Cold Injuries
There are several things you can do to prevent cold stress injuries to your workers.
- Train workers on how to properly protect themselves with clothing (layers of loose-fitting, insulating clothes, waterproof boots, etc.) and by drinking warm fluids and taking breaks in warm areas.
- Look for exhaustion. Workers who are exhausted are unable to regulate body temperature normally.
- Install radiant heaters or other heating equipment.
What to Do If a Worker is Impacted by a Cold Stress Injury
- Call 911.
- Move the worker to a warm place.
- Change the worker into dry clothing.
- Cover the worker’s body with blankets (including head and neck, but not the face).
- If medical help is more than 30 minutes away, give the worker warm, sweetened fluids if they are alert and apply heat packs to their armpits and the sides of their chest, neck, and groin.
- Follow the recommendations “For Hypothermia” and additionally:
- Do not rub the frostbitten area.
- Keep the worker from 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.
For Trench (Immersion) Foot:
- Remove wet shoes/socks.
- Keep affected feet elevated and keep the worker from walking.
- Get medical attention.
See OSHA’s printable card on cold stress injuries. This card is handy to keep as a reference.