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Cold Stress

What Does Cold Stress Mean?

Cold stress refers to health conditions that arise from prolonged exposure to cold temperatures, high-speed winds, dampness, or cold water. It occurs when the skin temperature is lowered and drives down the body's core temperature.

If left unaddressed, cold stress can lead to various negative outcomes, including tissue damage and death.

Safeopedia Explains Cold Stress

There are four contributing factors to cold stress:

  • Low temperatures
  • Cold or high-speed winds
  • Dampness
  • Cold water

Each of these can reduce the body's core temperature or increase the rate at which the body loses heat. Heavy winds can also cause the body to feel colder, regardless of the temperature.

Types of Cold Stress

Cold stress manifests in different ways, including:

  • Trench foot, a non-freezing foot injury caused by prolonged exposure to wet and cold conditions (trench foot can also occur at high temperatures if the foot is constantly wet)
  • Frostbite, which occurs when exposed skin freezes, causing permanent damage and possibly requiring amputation
  • Hypothermia, which sets in when the body's core temperature drops below 95°F and can result in cognitive symptoms such as confusion, memory loss, and slurred speech

Exposure Limits for Cold Environments

There are no exposure limits for working in cold environments but there are guidelines that can be used for work assessments, safe work plans, and weather condition monitoring. The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) publishes Threshold Limit Values (TLVs) for cold stress, which can serve as a reference for employers and safety professionals.

The most effective way to prevent cold stress is by wearing clothing and PPE that provides adequate protection from the elements. The ACGIH also recommends that work that takes place at temperatures below 10.4°F (or -12°C) should have the following measures in place:

  • A buddy system for continuous monitoring
  • A working pace that will prevent heavy sweating
  • Adequate time for new employees to adjust to the work conditions
  • Leeway in work performance to account for the weight and bulk of warmer clothing
  • Work processes that minimize sitting or standing for long periods of time
  • Re-warming procedures and warm break areas

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