Winter is in full swing and many regions are experiencing frigid temperatures. The federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) encourages employers and employees to take necessary precautions to prevent and treat cold-related health problems.
The Dangers of Cold Stress
Extremely cold or wet weather is a dangerous situation that can cause occupational illness and injuries such as hypothermia, frostbite, trench foot, and chilblains. Employees who work outside—such as in construction—are especially vulnerable, and individuals with predisposed health conditions (e.g., cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or hypertension), older persons, or those taking certain medications are at an increased risk.
Some of the dangers for workers who are exposed to extreme cold or work in cold environments include:
- Frost Bite. Frost bite refers to freezing in deep layers of the skin and tissue. Symptoms include waxy bluish or white skin color, with skin becoming hard and numb. Frost bite usually affects the fingers, hands, toes, feet, ears, and nose.
- Hypothermia. Hypothermia is a condition in which the body uses up its stored energy and can no longer produce heat. It occurs when normal body temperature (98.6°F/37°C) drops to or below 95°F (35°C), often after prolonged exposure to cold temperature. Symptoms include fatigue or drowsiness, uncontrolled shivering, cool bluish skin, slurred speech, clumsy movements, and irritable, irrational or confused behavior.
- Trench Foot. Trench foot is an injury of the feet resulting from prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions. Symptoms include reddening of the skin, numbness, leg cramps, swelling, tingling pain and blisters or ulcers.
- Chilblains. Chilblains are ulcers formed by damaged small blood vessels in the skin, caused by the repeated exposure of skin to temperatures just above freezing to as high as 60°F. Symptoms include redness, itching, inflammation, and possible blistering.
How to Protect Workers
OSHA suggests the following tips for minimizing serious health problems caused by cold weather:
- Recognize the environmental and workplace conditions that lead to potential cold-induced illnesses and injuries.
- Learn the signs and symptoms of cold-induced illnesses/injuries and what to do to help.
- Train your workforce about cold-induced illnesses and injuries.
- Select proper clothing for cold, wet, and windy conditions. Layer clothing to adjust to changing environmental temperatures and for insulation. Carry extra socks, gloves, hats, jacket, blankets, and a change of clothes.
- Take frequent short breaks in warm dry shelters to allow the body to warm up.
- Perform work during the warmest part of the day.
- Avoid exhaustion or fatigue because energy is needed to keep muscles warm.
- Use the buddy system (work in pairs).
- Drink warm, sweet beverages (sugar water, sports-type drinks). Avoid drinks with caffeine (coffee, tea, or hot chocolate) or alcohol.
- Eat warm, high-calorie foods like hot pasta dishes.
For More Information
OSHA provides a number of resources to help plan for weather-related hazards, including this pamphlet on cold stress. Be sure to visit our Safety & Wellness section to learn more about your legal obligation to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards.
And download our FREE Federal Labor Laws by Company Size Chart to review key laws, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Act, that may apply to your business.
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