Working in the Cold

It’s that time of the year.  Winter is settling in and we are bundling up for a long day of working in the cold.  Just as there are risks with working in the heat, the cold brings risks that we need to be aware of.  Anyone working in a cold environment may be at risk for cold stress.  Prolonged exposure to cold and/or freezing temperatures may cause serious health problems such as hypothermia, frostbite, and trench foot.  Although OSHA does not have a specific standard that covers working in cold environments, under the OSH Act, employers have a duty to protect workers from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm in the workplace.  The first step in protecting workers is to be able to recognize the hazards of cold stress.

Hypothermia is when the normal body temperature (98.6°F) drops to less than 95°F.  Exposure to the cold causes the body to lose heat faster than it can be produced.  Hypothermia can occur at temperatures above 40°F if you are chilled from rain, sweat, or cold water.  Signs and symptoms usually develop slowly and may include:

  • Shivering (this may stop as body temperature drops)
  • Slurred speech or mumbling
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Clumsiness or loss of coordination
  • Drowsiness, fatigue, or very low energy
  • Confusion or memory loss

Hypothermia is an emergency and you should seek medical care immediately.  To prevent further heat loss while waiting for medical care to arrive try to move the person to a warmer location, change them into dry clothes, cover them with a blanket or try to protect them from the cold air and wind. 

Frostbite occurs when body tissues freeze and can occur at temperatures above freezing due to wind chill.  Frostbite may result in permanent damage or amputation.  It typically occurs on exposed skin such as; fingertips, toes, earlobes, cheeks, chin, and the tip of the nose.  The early signs and symptoms of frostbite are patches of reddish skin and burning pain.  The condition then progresses to cold, numb, white, or grayish skin that feels stiff or looks waxy.  Immediately get out of the cold if you suspect frostbite.  Mild frostbite can be treated with first aid by slowly warming the affected area, but don’t rub it since that can damage your skin.  If the numbness doesn’t go away, you should seek emergency care.   

Trench foot is an injury to the feet that is caused by exposure to wet and cold conditions.  Wet feet lose heat at a rate of 25x faster than dry feet.  Workers can get trench foot in temperatures as high as 60°F if feet are constantly wet.  The signs and symptoms of trench foot are tingling, pain, swelling, cramps, numbness, and blisters.  If you are experiencing any of those signs and symptoms; remove your wet boots and socks, dry your feet, avoid walking and keep your feet elevated.

Construction work involves working in the cold.  Here are some important tips that can be taken to help prevent cold stress:

  • Wear proper clothing for the environment
  • Take breaks in warm, dry areas
  • Avoid exhaustion or fatigue
  • Keep extra clothing handy in case clothes get wet
  • Drink warm, sweet beverages
  • Eat warm, high-calorie foods

It’s almost impossible to avoid the conditions when working in construction, however, if you can work in pairs or at the very least, check on each other, you will be able to recognize the danger signs of cold stress quicker helping to avoid serious harm.   

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