On average, January is the coldest month of the year and for those who have crews out working this winter weather means employees can be at risk of cold stress, where the body’s skin temperature and internal temperature are driven down.
When the body is unable to warm itself, serious cold-related illnesses and injuries may occur including hypothermia, frostbite and trench foot. Your duty to your employees is to train workers on the environmental and workplace conditions that can lead to cold stress, the symptoms of cold stress, how to prevent it and how to help those who are affected.
Hypothermia occurs if a person’s body drops less than 95 degrees Fahrenheit.
While hypothermia is something that sounds like it only occurs in extremely cold temperatures, it can occur even when the temperature is above freezing, especially if the person is wearing wet clothing or exposed to brisk winds. For instance, when the temperature is 40 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind speed is 15 mph the wind chill temperature is 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
Symptoms of hypothermia include:
- Uncontrollable shivering
- Loss of coordination
- Slurred speech
- Slowed heart rate and breathing
If a co-worker is suffering from hypothermia, call 911 immediately. Move the worker to a warm, dry area and replace any wet clothing with dry clothing. Wrap their body in layers of blankets.
Frostbite is the freezing of the skin and tissues. It can result in permanent damage to the body. People with reduced blood circulation and those who are not dressed properly are more at risk.
Symptoms of frostbite include:
- Reddened skin develops gray/white patches in the fingers, toes, nose or earlobes
- Loss of feeling
- Possible blisters in the affected areas
Similar to treating hypothermia, call 911 and move the worker to a dry, warm area while you wait for medical help. Wrap the frostbitten areas loosely in a dry cloth. Do not rub the affected area as this damages the tissue. Do not try to re-warm the frostbitten area before medical help arrives.
Trench foot is a non-freezing injury that occurs in prolonged exposure to cold and wet conditions. It can occur in temperatures as high as 60 degrees Fahrenheit if feet are constantly wet.
- Reddening skin
- Leg cramps
If a crew member is suffering from trench foot, seek medical assistance as soon as possible. Remove wet shoes and socks. Dry the feet and avoid working on them. Keep the affected feet elevated and avoid walking.
Preventing Cold Stress
When your crews are working outdoors during the winter, here are some tips you can share that prevent cold stress.
- Layer clothing. Employees should wear an inner layer that wicks perspiration away from skin; a middle layer that absorbs perspiration and retains warmth and an outer layer that protects against wind and allows ventilation.
- If employees get wet, they should change into dry gear immediately. Store a plastic bag with extra gloves, hats, socks and coats in the work vehicle.
- Encourage wearing headgear designed to prevent heat loss – hats that also cover the ears and neck and are made of wool or a knit material with a wind-proof outer shell.
- Employees should wear waterproof, insulated boots.
- Provide warm, non-caffeinated beverages, and allow for breaks in a heated space.