How to Protect Workers from Cold Stress
Employees who work in cold environments may be at risk for cold stress—and with the Canadian winters we’ve been facing, it’s important for both employers and employees to know the risks and take precautions to reduce the risk of injury.
It’s not just the cold itself you need to worry about—wind can also contribute to cold stress. High winds cause heat to leave the body more rapidly, so it’s important to know the wind chill temperature to gauge the exposure risk and plan how to work safely.
Risk Factors for Cold Stress
The main risk factors that contribute to cold stress are:
- Wetness or dampness.
- Dressing improperly.
- Health conditions such as hypertension, hypothyroidism, and diabetes.
- Poor physical conditioning.
Fortunately, many of these risks can be managed through proper training and care.
How Can Cold Stress Be Prevented?
It’s an employer’s responsibility to educate workers on how to prevent injuries related to cold weather. Training should include:
- How to recognize 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.
- How to select proper clothing for cold, wet, and windy conditions.
Both employers and workers play a role in preventing injuries caused by cold weather. Everyone can adopt certain strategies to reduce the risk of cold stress.
- Monitor the physical condition of workers, especially if they aren’t accustomed to working in the cold.
- Schedule frequent, short breaks in warm, dry areas to allow the body to warm up.
- Schedule work during the warmest part of the day.
- Ensure employees use the buddy system (work in pairs).
- Provide warm, sweet beverages and avoid drinks with alcohol.
- Provide engineering controls such as radiant heaters.
- Wear several layers of clothing. The layers should fit loosely, since tight clothing reduces blood circulation and warm blood needs to be circulated to the extremities.
- Be aware that some clothing may restrict movement and create a hazardous working situation.
- Make sure to protect the ears, face, hands, and feet in extremely cold weather.
- Wear waterproof and insulated boots.
- Be sure to wear a hat.
The goal is to expose as little skin as possible to the cold environment.
Common Cold Stress Injuries (and How to Treat Them)
Immersion (Trench Foot)
Immersion, or trench foot, is a non-freezing injury of the feet caused by prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions. Wet feet lose heat 25 times faster than dry feet.
Symptoms: Reddened skin, tingling, pain, swelling, leg cramps, numbness, and blisters.
What to Do:
- Remove wet shoes/boots and socks.
- Dry the feet and avoid standing on them.
- Keep feet elevated and avoid walking.
- Seek medical attention.
Frostbite is caused by the freezing of the skin and tissues. The risk of frostbite is increased in people with reduced blood circulation and people who are not dressed properly for extremely cold temperatures.
Symptoms: Reddened skin with gray/white patches on the fingers, toes, nose, or ear lobes, tingling, aching, a loss of feeling, firm/hard skin, and blisters.
What to Do:
- Protect the frostbitten area from contact by wrapping loosely in a dry cloth.
- Do not rub the affected area, which can cause damage to the skin and tissue.
- Do not try to warm the frostbitten area before getting medical help. It is safer for the frostbitten area to be warmed by medical professionals.
Hypothermia occurs when the body temperature drops, causing the body to lose heat faster than it can be produced. Prolonged exposure to cold will eventually use up the body’s stored energy. Hypothermia is most likely at very cold temperatures, but can occur if a worker becomes chilled from rain, sweat, or immersion in cold water.
Symptoms: Mild symptoms include shivering or stomping to generate heat. Moderate to severe symptoms are loss of coordination, confusion, slurred speech, slow heart rate or breathing, unconsciousness, and inability to think clearly, stand, or walk.
What to Do:
- Call 911 immediately.
- Move the worker to a warm, dry area.
- Remove any wet clothing and replace with dry clothing. Wrap the entire body (including the head and neck) in layers of blankets, and use a vapor barrier such as a tarp or garbage bag. Do not cover the face.
- Give warm, sweetened drinks if alert.
Cold and wet conditions can increase the risk of various cold stress injuries, but there are preventative measures you can take. It’s important for both employers and employees to be aware of the risks, how to prevent cold stress, and what to do if an injury occurs. Work together to keep everyone safe from cold stress!
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