How to Avoid Injuries and Illness When Temperatures Plummet

Limiting a worker’s exposure to cold can go a long way toward preventing cold stress injuries and illnesses such as frostbite, hypothermia, trench foot, and chilblains.  Three major factors to keep in mind when working outdoors are air temperature, wind, and moisture. Exposed skin is in danger of freezing within one minute when the temperature is 10 degrees and there is a wind of around 20 mph. Wet conditions greatly increase the potential for frostbite or hypothermia. Moisture on the skin and any wind can cause the body to lose heat.

Dressing properly for the cold is critical for workers.  Experts recommend using breathable layers, making sure clothing is not so tight it cuts off circulation or impedes movement.  Be aware that PPE may restrict some movements. Layering also allows workers to remove clothing if they become too warm from exertion or changing weather conditions. Layering clothing provides a worker with better insulation against the cold because the body warms trapped air between the layers. If the fabric is breathable it will keep perspiration from building up on the skin and pulling away needed body heat. Wearing a hat or hood is also recommended, to decrease the loss of body heat escaping from the head. Knitted hats that cover the ears and at least part of the face will likely keep a worker warmer than a ball cap.

Regarding footwear, experts suggest insulated, waterproof boots with good built-in traction. In extremely cold regions, it is also recommended boots be felt lined, rubber bottomed and leather-topped. Gloves should also be insulated and water resistant.

OSHA doesn’t have a defined standard on working in the cold but states that employers must protect workers from hazards in accordance with the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The following are recommendations for employers pertaining to protecting employees:

  • Schedule work to be completed during the warmest part of the day

  • Tell workers to use the “buddy system” (nobody works outdoors alone) so they can monitor each other

  • Provide extra workers for longer, more demanding jobs

  • Set up a warm dry shelter for workers to take breaks in out of the cold

  • Provide warm liquids to drink, avoiding caffeine and alcohol

  • Use engineering controls such radiant heaters, if possible

  • Ensure you have a method to communicate with all workers, especially in remote locations

Also advise workers to avoid touching metal surfaces with bare skin, and to bring extra clothing in case they get wet. Have emergency cold weather kits available: blankets, a thermos of a hot beverage, first aid kit with chemical hot packs and a thermometer.

OSHA warns workers to avoid working to fatigue or exhaustion. Stay hydrated and drink as much water as in the summertime. You can get dehydrated even though you don’t feel like you are sweating. It is a common mistake in cold temperatures. People don’t realize heat is escaping their body and taking moisture from the body with it.

Employers must train their workers on the prevention, risks, and symptoms of cold stress. Quick daily reminders are also helpful, especially when the weather is particularly bad. Provide written information concerning the signs and symptoms of frostbite, hypothermia, trench-foot, chilblains, and angina. This information can be easily found on the internet. Employers should remind workers of the symptoms they need to be looking out for, and that it is a time when they must keep a close eye on their co-workers, and make sure everybody is doing “OK”.

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