How do I prevent and treat frostbite?
According to OSHA, frostbite is one of the most common cold-induced injuries in those who work in cold weather. It is characterized by the freezing of the skin and underlying tissue, and it often affects the hands and feet. While frostbite can occur at any cold temperature, the colder it is, the more quickly it will set in.
It’s important to understand the signs and symptoms of frostbite, as this can help you identify it in yourself or a co-worker before it progresses too far. Be on the lookout for:
- Skin that looks waxy and is firm to the touch
- Reddened skin with grey or white patches
- Numbness in the affected part
- Aching or tingling sensation in affected part
- Blisters (in severe cases)
Dressing properly for the weather is one of the most effective ways to ward off frostbite. Tight clothes reduce blood circulation to the extremities, so it’s important to wear several layers of loose-fitting clothing. Experts recommend:
- A wicking layer
- A light insulating layer
- A heavy insulating layer
- A breathable, waterproof outer layer
The ears, face, hands, feet, and especially the fingers are particularly vulnerable to extreme cold. So, workers should wear boots and gloves that are waterproof and insulated. To protect your face, a balaclava or facemask can be layered under a hard hat.
Anatomy of a Superstar Winter Glove
A good winter work glove is a powerful tool in your safety program and cold prevention efforts.
Here are three key features you’ll appreciate:
- A water-repellent outer coating or material that provides water resistance and wind repellence
- An insulating liner that traps air for warmth and offers moisture-wicking capabilities
- Comfort and a good fit
Multiple Function Winter Gloves
The marketplace has a wide selection of winter work gloves to meet a variety of jobsite applications. In addition to helping you combat the cold in mild and extreme conditions, winter work gloves often serve other protective functions, including:
- High visibility protection
- Cut protection
- Impact protection
- Abrasion protection
- Waterproof insulated protection
- Extreme condition insulated protection
- Gripping capabilities in wet and dry applications
Workers should monitor their own physical condition, as well as that of their co-workers. Take frequent breaks in warm locations and drink warm liquids to stay hydrated, avoiding caffeine. It’s always a good idea to carry extra socks, hats, gloves, and a change of clothes with you; if your clothes get wet, you’ll be able to change them immediately to mitigate the loss of body heat.
(Learn how to Manage Cold Stress with the Proper Winter PPE.)
Frostbite First Aid
Those suffering from frostbite should be moved to a warm place immediately. If the feet and toes are affected, the individual should refrain from walking on them as much as possible. Summon medical assistance – and don’t be afraid to call 911 if the situation is severe.
While waiting for medical assistance:
- DO immerse the affected area in warm (not hot) water
- DON’T apply a heating pad or seek warmth from a fireplace or radiator
- DO wrap the affected area in a soft cloth
- DON’T rub or massage the area, as doing so can cause further damage
Knowing how to identify and treat frostbite is an important skill during these cold winter months. But preparation is perhaps even more critical, because prepared workers are able to prevent frostbite altogether.
More Q&As from our experts
- How can employers prepare for OSHA's final rule?
- What are the most common toxic gases in confined spaces?
- What is the best kind of gas detector to use in confined spaces?