DEALING WITH COLD STRESS IN THE WORKPLACE: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
With winter here, the cold weather is definitely upon us. While this season can be all about warm cider and evenings by the fireplace, there are also some risks that come with low temperatures, especially in the workplace.
Cold stress is an issue that a few workers in various industries are privy to and have to prepare for. It is a safety threat that can result in fatalities. Thankfully, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or OSHA has laid out guidelines to ensure the safety of employees exposed to extreme conditions.
HOW COLD IS COLD?
What is considered cold can differ across different locations and for various individuals. In areas that don’t experience your typical winter season, almost freezing conditions can be considered extreme weather. Likewise, people who did not grow up experiencing cold can be more sensitive to lower temperatures.
There are several factors that contribute to the effects of extreme cold:
- Wetness or Dampness: If a person gets wet, the body loses heat when it evaporates the water in the surface of the skin. Coupled with cold weather, dampness can be near-fatal.
- Wind Chill: Similar to dampness, wind chill can exacerbate cold conditions. High wind speed in combination with low temperatures can make work conditions dangerous.
- Employee’s Current Health Condition: Certain illnesses like hypertension and diabetes can act up during extreme climate conditions.
- Employee’s Preparedness: Layers can help minimize the effect of extreme cold. Wearing the proper clothing and protective gear can affect how much the weather can affect an individual.
When exposed to cold weather, the body uses its energy to keep internal temperatures stable. However, if extreme conditions do not change, the body would try to protect internal organs and redirect blood flow to the chest cavity — leaving extremities like the arms and legs left to the cold. Shivering also occurs as the body tries to increase heat production.
WHAT ARE THE MOST COMMON COLD STRESS SYMPTOMS?
Cold stress symptoms can arise when the body is exposed to extreme cold for long periods of time. The three most common illnesses include hypothermia, frostbite, and trench foot.
Hypothermia occurs when the body experiences a steep drop in temperature. This condition often occurs when a person is exposed to cold weather conditions he or she is not prepared for. While mostly associated during the winter months, there are actually more incidents of hypothermia during spring and fall. A person is considered suffering from hypothermia when their internal temperature drops to anywhere <95°F.
In normal conditions, the heart and the lungs produce most of the body’s heat. When a person experiences cold stress, the body cools down and these organs produce less heat. This protective shut down is designed in order to conserve body heat and protect the brain. At this point, the body would continue to shiver in order to increase body heat. However, over time, shivering would cease as the body’s regulation system begins to fail.
Aside from shivering, symptoms of hypothermia include shallow breathing, confusion, exhaustion, slurred speech, coordination problems, and a weak pulse.
When the body is experiencing cold temperatures, it tries to protect internal organs by directing blood flow to the chest cavity. While it keeps the body from expiring, the extremities are collateral damage, often because of frostbite.
Frostbite is a condition when the body tissue, usually in the fingers and toes, freezes. This condition can be temporary and certain body parts can be rewarmed. However, if deep tissue dies, the amputation of the affected part might be necessary.
Symptoms of frostbite can include pain in the affected area eventually numbing as the cold sets in deeper, discoloration, and blistering especially in severe cases.
Trench Foot was first identified during World War I when soldiers from both sides of the war were exposed to cold, wet conditions that prevented them from keeping their feet dry. While the condition seems innocuous, Trench Foot claimed the lives of over 70,000 soldiers during wartime.
This condition occurs when the feet get wet and it doesn’t get dried properly. Trench Foot is different from frostbite since it isn’t necessarily the temperature that worsens the affliction. Wearing wet socks for long periods of time, however, does.
Symptoms include redness, the appearance of blisters, blotchy skin, and dried, cracking skin. In extreme cases, Trench Foot can result in permanent nerve damage and eventually amputation.
HOW CAN YOU PROTECT YOURSELF FROM COLD STRESS?
You may be wondering how to avoid cold stress. Well, as they say, prevention is better than cure. The same can be said for cold stress safety. OSHA’s Cold Stress safety guidelines have laid out several measures employees can take before working in extreme conditions.
Review Workplace Training on Cold Stress
Employers are required by OSHA to train their employees about cold stress and working in extreme weather conditions. Before beginning your tasks, ensure you have been trained and are comfortable with safety guidelines and first aid procedures.
Inspect Engineering Safety Precautions
Additionally, in certain industries OSHA requires companies to provide safety engineering controls such as heaters. Check to ensure all controls are working properly before proceeding to the job.
Wear Protective Clothing
Layering is very important when it comes to dealing with cold stress. When working in cold conditions, don three layers of clothing for protection. The first layer should protect you from getting wet or damp. The second should be thick enough to provide proper insulation, and the third should protect you from the elements. When feasible, wear hats or gloves can also protect you from cold stress.
Adjust your Work Habits
Aside from protective clothing, adjusting work habits can also provide cold weather protection. For instance, abstaining from caffeine and keeping hydrated can decrease the effect of cold conditions on your body. Moreover, it’s advisable to work during the warmest hours of the day and to utilize a buddy system.
WHAT CAN YOU DO IN AN EMERGENCY?
In a cold stress emergency, the first step is to call for emergency medical assistance. While waiting, take off the victim’s wet or damp clothing and replace it with dry clothes. It’s important to keep the victim warm by using blankets and other thick materials. If the victim is conscious, give them warm, decaffeinated, sweetened drinks. In cases of frostbite, prevent rubbing or walking on the area(s) afflicted.
Cold stress is a very real workplace safety standard that needs to be taken seriously. Extreme temperatures can be dangerous or fatal. The above guidelines should be disseminated and updated regularly in order to prevent emergencies.
With the cold weather in full swing, now is the best time to act now and update your company’s cold stress regulations. Thankfully, you don’t have to develop your company’s cold stress program on your own. We have cold stress training kits available and much more!
To learn how we can solve your cold stress safety training and compliance needs, check out our products and services here or call us at (866) 329-5407 today. Remember, your one call can save lives and improve your company’s ROI.