What exactly is cold stress?
Extreme cold working conditions vary across the country, your body may be used to working in below zero temperatures, however if you are used to working in a warmer climate, near freezing temperatures may be considered “extreme cold.” Your body works harder to maintain its temperature and when temperatures drop below normal heat will escape your body more quickly. OSHA states: “Cold stress occurs by driving down skin temperature and eventually the internal body temperature (core). This may lead to serious health problems, and may cause tissue damage, and possible death.”
Injuries Caused by Cold Stress & Their Warning Signs
Prolonged exposure to cold will make our body lose heat faster than it can be produced, resulting in abnormally low body temperature.
- Symptoms: worker may be alert, but have uncontrollable shivering, if condition worsens shivering may stop, body temperatures continue to fall, lose coordination, fumble items, confusion, disorientation, unable to stand, dilated pupils, slowed breathing and pulse, loss of consciousness.
- How can you help: Call 911 if medical assistance isn’t available. Move individual to a dry, warm area. Remove wet clothing, cover their body with layers of blankets and a vapor barrier if available (tarp, garbage bag). Offer sweet drinks, check vital signs, may need to provide rescue breathing or CPR if necessary.
Frostbite is an injury caused to the body due to freezing – most commonly affects the nose, ears, cheeks, fingers or toes. Most severe cases could result in amputation.
- Symptoms: decreased blood circulation to extremities, numbness, stinging or tingling of fingers or toes, aching, discoloration of skin
- How can you help: move to a warm, dry area. Unless absolutely necessary do not walk on or use frostbitten feet/toes/hands/fingers. Immerse frostbitten area in warm water (not hot water). Warm affected area, but NEVER rub or massage, do NOT use a heating pad, heat lamp or heat radiating from a stove or fire as these could all cause additional damage.
Trench foot or “immersion” foot occurs when feet are exposed to prolonged cold, wet conditions. This can actually occur in temperatures as high at 60 degrees Fahrenheit, if feet are constantly wet. Wet feet can lose heat up to 25x faster than dry, therefore skin tissue begins to die due to lack of oxygen and the build-up of toxic products.
- Symptoms: discoloration of the skin, numbness, cramping, tingling, blisters or bleeding under the skin or even gangrene.
- How can you help: remove your shoes/boots/wet sock, dry feet, avoid walking on affected area
As an employer your responsibilities lie with keeping your team safe and healthy while on the job. If you aren’t able to keep from working during the winter months, here are a few tips to help keep your team warm.
- Use relief workers or assign additional employees for longer jobs
- Provide warm beverages
- Make sure there is a warm area to use for breaks
- Monitor workers who may be at risk for cold stress
- Educate your team on signs, symptoms and treatment of any weather related illness or injury
- Provide PPEs and educate your team on proper usage of equipment