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How Cold Is Too Cold? Tips for Protecting Workers During the Winter Months

With the winter upon us, workers and their employers should begin considering the risks and hazards of working is a cold environment. Those workers who regularly work outdoors for extended periods of time, such as snow cleanup crews, sanitation workers, police officers and emergency response and recovery personnel, are at a nominal risk for experiencing cold stress.

Compiled from the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s website, we’d like to share some FAQ’s, tips and information to prevent cold stress during this imminent winter weather.

How cold is too cold?

Extreme cold and its effects ultimately vary across different areas of the country; in regions that are not used to winter weather, near freezing temperatures are considered “extreme cold.” When the temperatures dip too low, the body is forced to work harder to maintain its temperature. Additionally, colder-than-normal temperatures can cause body heat to leave the body more rapidly. Wind chill is the temperature your body feels when air temperature and wind speed are combined. For example, when the air temperature is 40°F, and the wind speed is 35 mph, the effect on the exposed skin is as if the air temperature was 28°F.

Cold stress occurs by driving down the skin temperature and eventually the internal body temperature (core temperature). This drastic change can easily lead to serious health problems including serious tissue damage and even death.

What are the risk factors that contribute to cold stress?

Some of the risk factors that contribute to cold stress are: wetness or dampness, dressing improperly, and exhaustion. Additionally predisposing health conditions such as hypertension, hypothyroidism, diabetes and poor physical conditioning increase a person’s risk for cold stress.

Hypothermia, frostbite and trench foot are the most common conditions that can result from severe cold stress. Hypothermia occurs when body heat is lost faster than it can be replaced and the normal body temperature (98.6°F) drops to less than 95°F. Hypothermia is most likely at very cold temperatures, but it can occur even at cool temperatures (above 40°F), if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water. Frostbite is an injury to the body that is caused by freezing of the skin and underlying tissues. The lower the temperature, the more quickly frostbite will occur. Frostbite typically affects the extremities, particularly the feet and hands and is most often identified by reddened skin with gray and white patches, as well as numbness to the affected part. Amputation may be required in severe cases. Trench foot or immersion foot is caused by prolonged exposure to wetness and cold temperatures. It can occur at temperatures as high as 60°F if the feet are constantly wet. Non-freezing injury occurs because wet feet lose heat 25-times faster than dry feet. To prevent heat loss, the body constricts the blood vessels to shut down circulation in the feet. The skin tissue begins to die because of a lack of oxygen and nutrients and due to the buildup of toxic products.

How can cold stress be prevented?

OSHA does not have a specific protocol or standard that covers working in cold environments; employers have a responsibility to provide workers with employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards, including cold stress, which are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to them. OSHA advises that employers should train workers on the hazards of the job and safety measures to use, such as engineering controls and safe work practices, that will protect workers’ safety and health.

Employers should train workers on how to prevent and recognize cold stress illnesses and injuries and how to apply first aid treatment. Workers should be trained on the appropriate engineering controls, personal protective equipment and work practices to reduce the risk of cold stress.

Employers should provide engineering controls. For example, radiant heaters may be used to warm workers in outdoor security stations. If possible, shield work areas from drafts or wind to reduce wind chill.

Employers should use safe work practices. For example, it is easy to become dehydrated in cold weather. Employers therefore, can provide plenty of warm sweetened liquids to workers. Avoid alcoholic drinks. If possible, employers can schedule heavy work during the warmer part of the day. Employers can assign workers to tasks in pairs (buddy system), so that they can monitor each other for signs of cold stress. Workers can be allowed to interrupt their work, if they are extremely uncomfortable. Employers should give workers frequent breaks in warm areas. Acclimatize new workers and those returning after time away from work, by gradually increasing their workload, and allowing more frequent breaks in warm areas, as they build up a tolerance for working in the cold environment. Safety measures, such as these, should be incorporated into the relevant health and safety plan for the workplace.

Dressing properly is also extremely important to preventing cold stress. The type of fabric worn also makes a difference. Cotton loses its insulation value when it becomes wet. Wool, silk and most synthetics, on the other hand, retain their insulation even when wet. Employees are urged to wear at least three layers of loose fitting clothing, including an inner layer of wool, silk or synthetic to keep moisture away from the body. Employees should also wear a hat or hood to help keep the whole body warmer and reduce the amount of body heat that escapes through their heads. Facemasks and insulated gloves are recommended to prevent heat loss from the extremities.

Each and every employer is responsible for ensuring the safety of his or her employees. This includes making sure that all employees are properly trained to do their jobs without hazard, that the workplace environment is free of potential hazards that may cause injury, and that all equipment is properly working and maintained.

If you or a loved one was injured while at work due to exposure of unsafe working conditions, call the seasoned Workers’ Compensation Attorneys at the law offices to Altman & Altman to discuss your rights and eligibility for filing a worker’s compensation claim. Our attorneys pride themselves on being available around the clock for their clients, including on nights and weekends. All initial consultations are completely free of charge, of no obligation, and completely confidential.

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