Working in cold weather can be brutal. And even with the proper protection, being exposed to extreme conditions for long periods of time can still have severe short- and long-term effects.
Although OSHA does not have a specific standard that covers working in cold environments, the responsibility falls to the employers to provide a place of employment free from recognized hazards, including those related to winter weather.
Here's some practical information to help you understand, treat, and avoid the signs and symptoms of cold stress on the job. Get to know these hazards so they don’t get to know you.
Cold weather hazards
Your range of motion is one of the first things affected in cold weather. Your body wants to increase the temperature of the torso, so it pumps blood away from limbs. This can hinder flexibility, dexterity, and agility in the hands and feet, which limits a worker’s ability to grip or carry objects or even move away from dangerous situations.
Take a break and move into a warm area. If extra layers of warm clothing are available, add them. Drink warm fluids.
Common on the fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks, and chin, frostbite can occur at or below 32°F (0°C), or during above freezing temperatures with wind chills below 32°F (0°C). At this temperature, blood vessels close to the skin start to constrict, reducing blood flow to your extremities to dangerously low levels, leading to the eventual freezing and death of skin tissue in the affected areas. For early signs of frostbite, the skin will appear white or red and can feel hard or stiff (not ideal for working safely).
For any noticeable frostbite symptoms, always call 911. Move into a warm area as soon as possible and do not try to rewarm the area unless directed by medical personnel. Avoid rubbing or massaging the area or using any type of heating element (such as a heating pad), as this could cause more damage to the affected area. The key is to slowly bring the temperature of the affected area to normal body temperature (about 98.2°F or 37°C).
This is a condition in which core temperature drops below the required temperature for normal metabolism and body functions. Symptoms vary depending on the level of hypothermia; the four levels are mild, moderate, severe, and critical.
The first sign is severe shivering, followed by drowsiness. Irritability, confusion, and loss of coordination are more severe signs; with slurred speech, unconsciousness, and heart failure being the most severe dangers. Being mindful of these symptoms can be critical.
For any noticeable hypothermia symptoms, always call 911 immediately. If hypothermia is mild (core body temperature 90-95 degrees), start by moving the victim to a warm, dry area. Remove any wet clothing, replace with warm, dry clothes and wrap in blankets. Have them drink something warm and sweet. Avoid suppressing shivering, massaging the extremities, or placing in a warm bath or shower.
If the hypothermia is more moderate to severe (core body temperature below 90 degrees), be sure to handle the victim gently, and check for airway obstructions. If pulse and breathing are stabilized, gently remove wet clothing and replace with dry, layered blankets.
Begin rewarming victim with extra clothing, warm blankets, and even electric blankets or heating pads on the torso, armpits, and neck (be mindful of the temperature, as these can burn). Avoid suppressing shivering, giving anything by mouth, massaging the victim, or immersing in warm water. Even if the victim appears lifeless, continue first aid treatment. The body can sometimes survive for hours without signs of life at very low body temperatures.
This occurs when feet are cold and damp while wearing constricting footwear. Unlike frostbite, trench foot does not require freezing temperatures and can occur at temperatures up to 60° Fahrenheit. This condition can occur with as little as thirteen hours’ exposure. Symptoms of trench foot include tingling, itching, burning pain, and swelling of the feet. More advanced cases can also include blisters and infections.
Move yourself or the victim to a warm area and wrap with a dry towel. Do not try to rewarm the area unless directed by medical personnel.
How to avoid succumbing to the elements
As serious as these hazards are, they are avoidable if you are properly prepared. If you must work in cold environments, be sure you know how to avoid succumbing to any of these cold-weather hazards through the preparations below.
- Training – This should be given so workers understand the signs of cold stress and how to avoid the hazards.
- Engineering controls – These can be effective in reducing the risk of cold stress, such as radiant heaters or structures to shield work areas from drafts or wind to reduce wind chill.
- Safe work practices – Implement practices such as having warm liquids available to workers; limiting heavy work during particularly cold, wet, or windy weather; or ensuring frequent breaks are taken when workers are exposed to the elements.
- Dress properly – Wearing the proper clothing and PPE is extremely important.
- Clothing: Ensure your workers are prepared by donning several layers of warm clothing and making sure the head, feet, and hands are properly covered and protected. See what kind of clothing insulation you might need
- Gloves: Insulated gloves are best, depending on how low-temperature levels get in your work environment. Even better is using hand PPE that is insulated, lined for waterproofing, and offers the protection you need to do your job while maintaining dexterity. See what cold weather liners can do for you
- Boots: Ensure work boots are suitable for the job, such as waterproof, water-resistant, and lined.
It's also important to understand your physical body composition, metabolism, level of activity, amount of sleep, what you’ve eaten or drank, and, of course, what you’re wearing can determine the level of danger you could be putting yourself into while working in cold weather.
And remember, always keep on the lookout for cold stress symptoms and take breaks when needed.
HexArmor® can help
Have questions about what cold weather PPE may be right for you? Understanding the PPE you need for your workplace environment is imperative to any heat and cold stress safety program.