Working outdoors can be more freeing than being stuck in a cubicle, but it also leaves people exposed to the elements. And each season offers its own set of challenges. In cold temperatures, working outside leaves your employees at risk of contracting cold stress illnesses like frostbite, hypothermia, trench foot, and more. What’s more, falling or slipping on ice makes working in cold conditions even more treacherous.
Cold weather work can also wreak havoc on your bottom line since insurance premiums rise along with losses from workers’ compensation claims. A workers’ lost time on the job can also hurt customer satisfaction, which can ruin your company’s hard-earned reputation.
According to the latest winter injury statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), more than 20,000 injuries and illnesses a year are caused by cold exposure, ice, sleet or snow. And the associated medical and workers’ compensation costs total about $70 billion yearly in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That’s why we’re offering a helpful and comprehensive guide to cold stress prevention, which is full of easy-to-implement, time-proven tips to help you navigate working in cold weather.
Learn what measures you can take and the signs and symptoms you can teach your employees to look for, so you can keep them – and your business – healthy and productive.
What is cold stress?
Cold stress is when the body can no longer maintain its optimal temperature after being exposed to the cold for prolonged periods of time, per the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSHA). Body temperature starts dropping first at the surface – the skin – then moves deeper, to the inner body. The results can include serious sickness or injury resulting in permanent tissue damage or death.
There are three major kinds of cold stress injuries or illnesses that those outside working in the cold should be aware of: hypothermia, frostbite, and trench foot. Knowing the signs and symptoms of these illnesses, especially in the early stages, can help your crews keep bad situations from getting worse.
Hypothermia occurs when the body starts losing heat faster than it can generate it. Lengthy exposures during outdoor work eventually sap the body’s stored energy, resulting in a drop in body temperature.
Body temperature that is too low also affects the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move normally. This is especially dangerous on job sites, because a person may not know what is happening and won’t be able to respond appropriately or react quickly when needed, which can further endanger them and the rest of the crew.
While hypothermia is most likely to happen at temperatures below freezing, it can also occur even at milder temperatures above 40°F if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water.
Signs and symptoms of hypothermia include:
- Early Stage
- Loss of coordination
- Confusion and disorientation
- Late Stage
- No shivering
- Blue skin
- Dilated pupils
- Slowed pulse and breathing
- Loss of consciousness
Frostbite is when skin and the tissues beneath it are damaged by exposure to cold, according to Mayo Clinic. If discovered early, frostbite can be treated without permanent damage. Deep frostbite, however, causes skin discoloration, blisters, and flesh that feels extremely thick. This level of frostbite can cause permanent damage. It’s a medical emergency, and professional medical help should be sought immediately.
Before it gets to this stage, however, you and anyone working for you outdoors in cold weather should be aware of an early stage of frostbite called “frostnip.” Very common among those with prolonged exposure to the cold, frostnip involves just the surface of the skin, usually on the nose, ears, cheeks, fingers, and toes. Symptoms include reddened skin that might be accompanied by a burning or tingling sensation. This typically occurs in the extremities, like ears, nose, feet and hands first, so it’s important to keep them protected.
Workers must go indoors at the first sign of frostnip to avoid it turning into full-blown frostbite.
While it may sound silly, trench foot can be serious. Also called immersion foot syndrome, it’s a cold-stress illness that can occur when working in cold, wet conditions outside. When your feet stay wet and cold for too long, says the Cleveland Clinic, blood flow to them becomes restricted, causing numbness, redness, pain, and swelling. Treatment includes gentle rewarming of the foot.
How to protect your employees
It’s important to create and implement a cold weather safety plan in order to safeguard your workers and ensure your business runs smoothly even in severe weather. Though OSHA doesn’t have a specific standard that covers working in colder temperatures or weather, employers have a responsibility to provide workers a workplace free from recognized hazards, including winter weather-related ones.
We suggest holding periodic training on cold-weather preparation and safety measures while providing the proper equipment to help keep your crew safe. The following tips will help get you started:
1. Train workers on the dangers of cold stress
- How to prevent these injuries or illnesses and recognize the signs and symptoms (listed above)
- The importance of self-monitoring and monitoring coworkers for symptoms
- First aid and how to call for additional medical assistance in an emergency
- How to select proper clothing for working in cold, wet, and windy conditions
- Navigating other winter weather-related hazards, like slippery roads and surfaces, biting winds and downed power lines
- How to recognize such hazards, and how they’ll be protected: engineering controls, safe work practices and proper selection of equipment, including personal protective equipment
2. Provide helpful supplies
Having access to the proper supplies to stave off cold-stress illnesses can prevent serious injury or even worse. For example, radiant heaters can be used to warm workplaces like outdoor security stations. If possible, employers should shield work areas from drafts or wind to reduce windchill.
You can also use products like ice melters, shovels, snowblowers, heat packs, and more to make your job site as safe as possible in winter. That’s why Reinders also offers a variety of snow and ice removal products that at least make for more efficient operations and limit working time outside.
Visit Reinders’ Winter Supplies Section for a full line of products.
3. Implement safe work practices
You or your managers can implement safe work practices to protect workers from injuries, illnesses and fatalities include:
- Providing employees working in cold, outdoor conditions with the proper tools and equipment to do their jobs
- Developing work plans that identify potential hazards and the safety measures that will be used to protect workers
- Scheduling non-urgent maintenance and repair jobs for the warmer part of the day
- Limiting the amount of time spent outdoors working on extremely cold days
- Using relief workers for long, demanding jobs
- Providing warm areas and warm liquids for workers during break periods
- Monitoring workers who are at risk of injuries or illnesses caused by cold stress
- Monitoring conditions during winter storms, and having a reliable means of communication or evacuation
- Acclimatizing new workers and those returning after time away from work by gradually increasing their workload and allowing more frequent breaks
- Knowing how the community warns the public about severe weather: sirens, NOAA Weather Radio and television
4. Provide/encourage protective clothing
OSHA requires employers to provide those working outdoors in the cold weather specialized personal protective equipment (PPE) when needed, such as gloves, safety glasses and shoes, earplugs or muffs, hard hats, respirators, coveralls, vests, and full body suits.
You should also make sure employees have their own clothing that can protect against the cold, including boots, hats, gloves, and layered clothing. Also, it’s prudent to provide employees working in cold, outside conditions anything that specifically guards against serious fall accidents, like hard hats. You should also educate them on the three layers of loose-fitting clothing they should wear for better insulation:
- An inner layer of wool, silk or synthetic (polypropylene) to keep moisture away from the body
- A middle layer of wool or synthetic to provide insulation even when wet
- An outer wind and rain protection layer that allows some ventilation to prevent overheating, like an insulated, water-resistant coat or jacket
Other protective clothing includes:
- A knit mask to cover face and mouth
- A hat that covers the ears
- Insulated, water-resistant/waterproof gloves and boots
- Looser clothing, which allows circulation of warm blood needed at extremities
You can also encourage workers to pack extra sets of gloves, socks, hats and other
clothes in case theirs get wet, and to bring a thermos of hot liquid to drink.
5. Teach employees how to respond
Your outdoor workers should know how to respond if someone is exhibiting signs of cold stress injury or illness that constitute a medical emergency. They should always call medical services; however, quick action can prevent injuries from getting worse or even save a co-worker’s life until professional help arrives.
Here’s how to respond to hypothermia while working in extremely cold weather, according to All One Health, a global leader in workplace physical and mental health:
- Request emergency medical assistance
- Move the victim into a warm room or shelter
- Remove any wet clothing
- Warm the center of the victim’s body first (chest, neck, head, and groin). You can use loose, dry layers of blankets, clothing, towels, or sheets.
- If the victim is conscious, warm beverages may help increase the body temperature, but do not give alcoholic beverages.
- After the victim’s body temperature has increased, keep the victim dry and wrapped in a warm blanket, including the head and neck.
Frostbite (see signs and symptoms above) is also a medical emergency. A worker in this condition must go to the emergency room immediately. Don’t try to rewarm the skin if you can’t continue to keep it warm, since warming and then re-exposing the skin can cause more damage. Otherwise, get the worker to warm shelter and rewarm the skin by immersing it in warm – not hot – water. Use your elbow as a test of the water first. Do not rub or massage the skin.
Even though you can’t stop cold weather, snow, and ice, having a prevention and action plan in place goes a long way toward protecting you and your workers. Educating them about the hazards of working in cold environments, providing appropriate protective equipment, and fostering communication and awareness isn’t just the smart thing, it’s the right thing.
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