Cold stress dangers
According to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), working in a cold environment can put anyone at risk for cold stress. Tissue damage and health problems can result when airport and emergency response personnel, crews clearing snow, construction workers, and others work in the cold.
There doesn’t need to be snow to affect the body. 40°F may seem warm to many, but add a wind of 40 mph and exposed skin feels a 27°F air temperature. These effects create cold stress by bringing down skin temperatures, working against internal body temperatures, and increasing the rate that heat leaves the body.
Cold stress risks increase when clothing becomes damp or wet, and workers aren’t dressed properly or they become exhausted. Diabetes, high blood pressure, and being out-of-shape can increase risks.
OSHA states the most common illnesses and injuries from cold stress include:
Hypothermia – the body loses heat faster than it can replace it, with a person’s body temperature dropping below 95° from a normal 98.6°. Initial symptoms may include alertness and shivering, advancing to confusion, disorientation, dilated pupils, slowing breathing and pulse, and loss of consciousness.
Frostbite – injuries occur when the skin and tissues freeze, often affecting feet, hands, and parts of the face or ears. Skin that’s red from the cold will develop gray or white patches, will become numb, and feel firm or hard. Blisters can develop on severely affected areas.
Immersion or trench foot – caused when the feet are wet for an extended period of time in temperatures as high as 60°F. As the body tries to prevent heat loss by constricting blood vessels in the feet, skin and tissue start dying. Symptoms include redness, swelling, loss of feeling, and blisters.
For any case of cold stress, OSHA recommends moving the worker indoors to a warm, dry room and replacing wet clothing with dry. Layer on blankets, place heat packs in armpits, along the sides of the chest, and groin, and then cover with a tarp or large plastic bag to provide a vapor barrier, without covering the person’s face. Avoid contact and protect injured areas by loosely covering them. If the worker is conscious, provide warm, sweetened drinks without alcohol. In severe cases, make an immediate call to 911.
Avoid cold stress injuries by training workers on potential injuries and illness, and the appropriate first aid. Provide heaters and breaks away from the cold, and use the buddy system to pair workers for monitoring each other. Encourage loose layers of clothing, wearing hats and facemasks, cold temperature gloves, and waterproof, insulated footwear.