Anyone who is exposed to extreme cold or working in cold environments may be at risk of cold stress. When the weather turns cold, your body has to work harder to maintain its core temperature. And as temperatures drop and wind speeds increase, our bodies lose heat more quickly, especially when we're active.

These dipping temperatures can be uncomfortable, but they're also a serious workplace hazard. It's important for every employer and safety professional, then, to understand cold stress and what you can do to protect your employees.

What Is Cold Stress?

Cold stress occurs when the temperature of the skin and the body's core temperature drop below the normal range.

If the body is unable to warm itself, cold stress can result in conditions like hypothermia and frostbite.

Risk Factors for Cold Stress

The following risk factors may increase an individual’s susceptibility to cold stress:

  • Wet or damp clothing
  • Weather-inappropriate clothing or a lack of personal protective equipment
  • Overexertion or exhaustion
  • Pre-existing health conditions, such as diabetes, hypothyroidism, and hypertension
  • Poor physical health

The Effects of Cold Temperatures on the Body

When dealing with cold stress, our bodies work to keep our internal core at the temperature required for its optimal functioning. It does this by shifting the blood flow, redirecting it away from the outer skin and extremities to our core regions (the chest and abdomen). As a result, the extremities and any exposed skin begin cooling rapidly, increasing the risk of cold-related disorders.

The Four Most Common Types of Cold-Related Disorders

Hypothermia

Hypothermia sets in when the body loses heat faster than it can be replaced and the body's temperature drops to less than 95°F.

Symptoms depend on the severity of the condition but can include confusion, impaired reflexes, and decreased heart rate.

Frostbite

Frostbite occurs when the skin and underlying tissues become frozen.

Like hypothermia, the symptoms of frostbite depend on the severity of the condition. Milder cases of frostbite may manifest as numbness or blistering, while severe cases may require amputation.

Trench Foot

Trench foot occurs when the foot is kept cold and wet for a prolonged period of time (usually due to the inside of a worker's boot becoming and remaining wet).

Workers with trench foot may experience numbness and a change in the coloring of the foot (either blue or red). Severe cases can result in blisters and open sores.

Chilblains

Chilblains occur when the skin is repeatedly exposed to cold temperatures, resulting in damage to the capillaries (small blood vessels).

Chilblains can be painful, blister, or cause a burning or itching sensation in the affected area.

Preventing Cold Stress

Tips for Employers

  • Know the signs and symptoms of cold stress and cold-related disorders
  • Train your employees on recognizing cold-related disorders and how to provide first aid treatment for them
  • Provide employees with PPE that is suited for the environmental conditions
  • Implement engineering controls like radiant heaters or building enclosures to shield work areas from drafts to reduce wind chill
  • Encourage 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

  • Know the symptoms of cold stress and cold-related disorders
  • Monitor your physical condition, as well as that of your co-workers
  • Wear clothing appropriate for working in the cold
  • Keep yourself and your clothing as dry as possible
  • Keep extra clothing accessible in case your garments or protective gear do get wet

Don’t Leave Safety Out in the Cold

In the summer, every employers and safety professional is concerned with managing heat stress and preventing heat-related illnesses. It's important to take the same attitude in the winter months, too. Cold stress is no joke, and anyone working outdoors during the winter can be at risk.