Working in Cold Weather: Identifying and Preventing Cold Stress

December 3, 2018
Work site covered in snow.

Working outside in cold, wet, icy, or snowy conditions can lead to serious health problems such as hypothermia and frostbite. The following tips can help you work safely in cold weather.

 

Hypothermia

When exposed to cold temperatures, your body begins to lose heat faster than it can be produced. According to The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), remaining in cold conditions for extended periods of time will eventually use up your body’s stored energy. This results in hypothermia, or an abnormally low body temperature.

Early symptoms include:

  • Shivering

  • Fatigue

  • Loss of coordination

  • Confusion and disorientation

Late symptoms:

  • No shivering

  • Blue skin

  • Dilated pupils

  • Slowed pulse and breathing

  • Loss of consciousness

To treat a worker with hypothermia, alert a supervisor and request medical assistance. Move the victim into a warm room or shelter, and remove all wet clothing. Warm the center of the body first, beginning with chest and ending with the head, with an electric blanket. Keep victim dry and wrapped in warm blanket.

 

Frostbite

Frostbite causes a loss of feeling and color in the affected areas. It most often affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or toes. Frostbite can permanently damage body tissues, and potentially lead to amputation.

Symptoms:

  • Reduced blood flow to hands and feel (fingers or toes can freeze)

  • Numbness

  • Tingling or stinging

  • Aching

  • Bluish or pale, waxy skin

Workers suffering from frostbite should remain in a warm room, and unless absolutely necessary, do not work on frostbitten feet or toes. Immerse the affected area in warm water, or with body heat. Do not rub or massage the area, or use a heating pad or fireplace for warming.

 

Trench foot

Trench foot occurs after prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions. It can occur at temperatures as high as 60 F if feet are constantly wet on the job. NIOSH says injury occurs because wet feet lose heat 25 times faster than dry feet. To prevent heat loss, the body constricts blood to shut down circulation in the feet.

Symptoms include:

  • Reddening of the skin

  • Numbness

  • Leg cramps

  • Swelling

  • Tingling pain

  • Blisters or ulcers

  • Bleeding under the skin

  • Gangrene (the foot may turn dark purple, blue, or gray)

To treat, remove shoes/boots and wet socks. Dry the area, and avoid walking on feet, as this may cause tissue damage.
 

Chilblains

Chilblains are caused by repeated exposure of skin to temperatures just above freezing, to has high as 60 F. Cold temperatures cause damage to capillary beds in the skin, causing permanent damage with recurring redness and itching with additional exposure.

Symptoms include:

  • Redness

  • Itching

  • Possible blistering

  • Inflammation

  • Possible ulceration in severe cases

Avoid scratching the skin if you’re suffering from chilblains, and slowly warm the affected area. Use corticosteroid creams to relieve itching and swelling, while keeping blisters cleaned and covered.

 

Source: NIOSH

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