Winter temperatures have arrived, and much of the country has plunged into freezing or near-freezing conditions. For the employees tasked with working outside, this means a few months of extreme cold and challenging days.
Cold stress - or how the body reacts to cold temperatures - is a very real problem during the winter. However, many workers may not know the signs and symptoms of cold stress, including conditions such as hypothermia, frostbite or trench foot. This can be a problem, especially for industries like construction, where many companies are still operating outdoors.
"Cold stress can be a problem even in warmer weather."
In order to ensure a safe working environment, mitigate risk and prevent workers' compensation insurance claims, it is important that the elements of cold stress are understood. Here is what you need to know:
What are the types of cold stress?
The three most common types of cold stress are:
Hypothermia involves a severe loss of body heat, to an extent where the person cannot replenish their warmth. While more likely in very cold conditions, rain, sweat or falling in water can all lead to hypothermia when the temperature is above freezing.
Symptoms of hypothermia include:
Frostbite is another common type of cold stress. This condition is the freezing of an area of the body, typically the nose, ears, cheeks, fingers or toes. Severe cases of frostbite may even lead to amputation. Frostbite can occur even as workers are dry - extreme cold and a lack of proper clothing can exacerbate the condition.
Symptoms of frostbite include:
3. Trench Foot
The third most common type of cold stress is called trench foot. This occurs when a worker's feet are immersed in cold water or remain damp for a prolonged period of time. Trench foot isn't directly tied to extreme temperatures - in fact, wet feet can contribute to the condition in temperatures as warm as 60 degrees.
Symptoms of trench foot include:
What can workers do about cold stress?
For starters, workers should understand the symptoms of these three common types of cold stress. Not only will they be able to monitor their own health, but they can identify problems with colleagues and take appropriate action.
"Workers must understand the symptoms of cold stress."
Workers must also dress properly for the weather conditions. This includes working in wet or damp areas, even if the temperature is above freezing. Employees should layer their clothes and wear the right type for the job, including work boots, gloves and hats. It is better to keep spare clothing nearby as well, in case their current outfit becomes wet. Drinking warm liquid can also mitigate the effects of cold stress.
What can employers do about cold stress?
Even the most attentive, proactive worker cannot tackle the dangers of cold stress alone. This is why a cooperative approach with their employer is so important.
One of the first steps you can take is a comprehensive review of your scheduling. If at all possible, plan outdoor work, equipment repairs and other tasks when the weather is more favorable, if not warmer. While it is not possible to prevent workers from operating outside at all times, you can limit the length they have to spend in cold temperatures.
Next, you must train your team. Go over the symptoms of cold stress in a group meeting. Then, highlight the safety measures that workers must take. Finally, discuss the best emergency response tactics and who to notify should an employee begin to show signs of cold stress.
Finally, you need to provide resources for your workers. These can range from insulated clothing to warm beverages or educational materials. Above all else, emphasize cold-weather safety this winter.