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Risk Management Bulletin


By January 1, 2011No Comments

With winter in full swing, many employers will be thinking about how to keep employees healthy in the cold. According to OSHA, cold stress can occur when the body is unable to warm itself. A cold environment forces the body to work harder to maintain its temperature, as cold air, water, and snow all draw heat from the body core – which can lead to tissue damage and possibly death. OSHA also points out that while below-freezing conditions and inadequate protection can bring about cold stress, problems can also occur with much higher temperatures, even in the 50s, when combined with rain and wind.

Four factors contribute to cold stress: (1) Cold air temperatures; (2) high winds; (3) dampness of the air; and (4) contact with cold water or cold surfaces. The most common cold-induced problems are hypothermia, frostbite, and trench foot:

  • Hypothermia occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can replace it. When core body temperature drops from the normal 98.6 oF to around 95oF, symptoms generally begin, including uncontrollable shivering, weakness, confusion, drowsiness, and pale, cold skin.
  • Frostbite occurs when the skin freezes and loses water. Severe cases might require amputation of the frostbitten area. Frostbite usually affects the extremities. The affected body part will be cold, tingling, stinging, or aching, followed by numbness. The skin turns red, then purple, then white, and is cold to the touch. In severe cases, there might be blisters.
  • Trench foot, or immersion foot, results from immersing the feet in cold water at temperatures above freezing for long periods. It’s similar to frostbite, but considered less severe. Symptoms include tingling, itching, or a burning sensation.

Here are seven cold weather safety recommendations for employees exposed to the elements on the job during the winter. Most apply equally to employees who engage in recreational or other outdoor activities on their own time.

  1. Wear at least three layers of clothing—an outer layer, such as GORE-TEX®, to break the wind; a middle layer of down or wool to absorb sweat and provide insulation; and an inner layer of cotton or synthetic weave to allow ventilation.
  2. Wear a hat. A significant percentage of heat escapes the body from the head.
  3. Have a change of dry clothing available in case work clothes become wet.
  4. Wear loose rather than tight clothing for better ventilation.
  5. Follow safe work practices when exposed to cold: Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration, work during the warmer parts of the day when possible, take breaks out of the cold, work in pairs, and consume warm, high-calorie food.
  6. Use engineering controls such as radiant heaters, shielding work areas from drafts or wind, and insulating material on equipment handles.
  7. Be able to identify symptoms of cold-related problems.