Anyone who is exposed to extreme cold or working in cold environments may be at risk of cold stress. In extreme cold weather conditions or in cold environments several additional potential hazards to consider. These include slippery roads and surfaces, as well as strong winds. In cold conditions, our bodies are forced to work harder to maintain our core temperature. Furthermore, as temperatures drop and wind speeds increase, our bodies lose heat more rapidly, especially when we are active. As such, this may result in serious health problems, which can cause illnesses, injuries and even fatalities. Therefore, understanding cold stress and what you can do to protect yourself, as well as your employees, from the cold is crucial in maintaining a safe work environment.
What is Cold Stress?
Cold stress occurs when the temperature of the skin, as well as that of the internal body (core temperature) drops below the normal range. If the body is unable to warm itself, this may cause tissue damage and possibly death.
Factors That Increase the Risk of Cold Stress
The following risk factors may increase an individual’s susceptibility to cold stress:
- Wearing wet or damp clothing
- Wearing inappropriate clothing or a lack of personal protective equipment (For more information on how to select the most appropriate PPE, check out 6 Personal Protective Equipment Guidelines Every Employee Should Know)
- Overexertion and/or exhaustion
- The presence of predisposing health conditions including diabetes, hypothyroidism and hypertension
- Poor physical health
The Effects of Cold Temperatures on the Body
In extreme cold conditions or cold environments, our bodies utilize energy to keep our internal core at an optimal temperature for proper functioning. This is done by shifting the blood flow through the body. That is, our bodies will begin to shift blood flow from our outer skin and extremities (hands and feet) to our core regions (chest and abdomen). As a result of this shift in blood flow, our exposed skin along with our extremities begin to cool rapidly, thus increasing our risk for cold-related disorders.
The Four Most Common Types of Cold-Related Disorders
Hypothermia: Hypothermia occurs when our body:
- loses heat faster than it can be replaced and;
- our normal body temperature (98.6°F) drops to less than 95°F
- Frostbite: Frostbite occurs when the skin and underlying tissues of our bodies become frozen. As the temperature decreases, the more quickly frostbite occurs. Generally, our extremities are the most susceptible to frostbite
- Immersion or Trench Foot: Trench Foot or immersion foot occurs when our feet are exposed to wet and cold temperatures for prolonged periods of time. Remember, to keep our internal core warm, our body shifts the flow of blood from the extremities to our core. Therefore, blood circulation to our feet and hands becomes restricted. As a result, the skin tissue in our feet and hands begins to die due to a lack of oxygen and nutrients combined with the build-up of toxic products
- Chilblains: Chilblains occur when the skin is repeatedly exposed to cold temperatures. The cold exposure causes damage to the small blood vessels in the skin called capillaries. Generally, the parts of our body most prone to chilblains are our cheeks, ears, fingers and toes. This type of damage is permanent
Preventing Cold Stress: Safety Tips for Employers and Employees
Exposure to cold stress and the negative effects it has on our bodies can be prevented. The following are some tips that employers and employees can undertake to ensure their health and safety during the upcoming winter months.
Tips for Employers:
- Know the signs and symptoms of cold stress and cold-related disorders
- Train your employees on how to recognize cold-related disorders and provide first aid treatment
- Train your employees on the most appropriate personal protective equipment to wear, as well as the best work practices to adopt to reduce and prevent the risk of cold stress
- Implement engineering controls like radiant heaters or building enclosures to shield work areas from drafts or wind to reduce wind chill
- Assign employees to tasks in pairs so that they can monitor each other for signs of cold stress and cold-related disorders
- Encourage your employees to take frequent breaks in warm areas
- Allow your new employees to acclimatize and accommodate them until they build up a tolerance for working in the cold environment
Tips for Employees:
- Ensure that you know the symptoms of cold stress and cold-related disorders
- Monitor your physical condition, as well as that of your co-workers
- Wear the appropriate clothing for working in the cold
- Keep yourself and your clothing as dry as possible
- Keep extra clothing inclusive of underwear easily accessible in case you need to change
- Drink warm sweetened fluids as often as possible and avoid alcohol
- Use the proper personal protective equipment provided by your employer
- Use the engineering controls provided by your employer
- Adopt safe work practices
Don’t Leave Safety out in the Cold
The colder weather season is upon us. Therefore, those of us who must work in extreme cold conditions or in cold environments must be aware of the effects of cold stress and cold-related disorders. Remember, anyone may be at risk for cold stress, so don’t leave safety out in the cold this winter. Stay warm and stay safe.