What dangers do workers face when working outside in the winter?
Winter weather presents a unique challenge for people who work outside. The cold, snow, and ice (and sometimes a mixture of all three) leave workers open to a variety of hazards, from frostbite to slips or falls on icy surfaces.
(Learn more in Holiday Hazards: Cold, Snow and Ice)
The Dangers of Cold Stress
Cold stress refers to any illness or injury brought on by exposure to cold temperatures. The most common of these are hypothermia, frostbite, and trench foot. Symptoms can develop even at 40°F (4°C), especially if high winds contribute to a wind chill factor or workers are wet from snow, rain, or sweat.
Cold stress occurs when the skin’s temperature and then the body’s core temperature are driven down. This can lead to cold-related illnesses if the body cannot elevate its temperature back to normal.
Risk factors that can lead to cold stress include:
- Wet or damp skin, hair, or clothing
- Clothing or PPE that isn’t suited to the weather
- Health conditions like hypertension, hyperthyroidism, and diabetes
- High winds or cold wind
- Damp working environments
Workers should be aware of the most common signs of cold stress and hypothermia: shivering, disorientation, and loss of coordination. In later stages, workers suffering from hypothermia will have dilated pupils, a slowed pulse, and may lose consciousness.
(Learn more in Cold Stress: Your Winter Safety Guide)
Common Cold-Related Illnesses
- Hypothermia occurs when the body can’t generate enough heat to function normally. Symptoms progress from slurred speech to memory loss, weakness in hands, drowsiness, exhaustion, collapse, unconsciousness, and death.
- Frostbite takes place when a part of the body loses feeling and color due to exposure to the cold. It usually affects the ears, nose, cheek, chin, fingers, toes. Symptoms include numbness, pain, and tingling in the affected area. Severe cases may require amputation.
- Trench foot (also known as immersion foot) results from prolonged exposure to cold and wet conditions. Heat is lost 25 times faster in wet feet than dry feet. When the feet are wet, the blood vessels constrict to prevent heat loss, preventing the blood from circulating. Symptoms begin with numbness and can lead to bleeding under the skin, blisters, and ulcers. In extreme cases, trench foot can also lead to gangrene.
Slips, Falls, and Accidents
Slippery walkways and roadways is another major winter hazard. Ice (including black ice and hidden patches of ice) and thawing snow increase the risk of slips, trips, and vehicular accidents during.
Working at heights can also be treacherous, with snow-covered roofs hiding fall-through hazards such as skylights as well as electricity lines.
Protecting Against Winter Hazards
Most cold weather illnesses and injuries are preventable by using proper protective clothing and exercising caution when moving around. The best protective measures include wearing loose layers of clothing, keeping skin covered, and avoiding getting wet. If workers do get wet, they should change into dry clothes as soon as possible.
Employers are required by OSHA to protect workers from recognized hazards including cold stress. Measures they can take include:
- Training workers to recognize conditions that can cause cold stress
- Training them to identify signs and symptoms of cold stress, how to treat cold-induced reactions
- Providing employees with protective clothing and PPE that is appropriate for cold and windy conditions
- Regularly monitoring the physical condition of workers
- Scheduling frequent breaks to allow workers to warm themselves
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