Cold Stress

Cold stress is a collective term for various cold related injuries due to prolonged exposure to working outside during the colder months. If you recall our tip of the month “The Occ Doc’s Guide to Beat the Heat” we briefly described the easy ways to spot and treat employees working in the summer’s heat. The seasons may have changed, but working outside still remains constant! This month’s tip will focus on the dangers of cold stress and how you can be prepared for the season.

Cold stress can occur even in temperatures as high as 50 degrees! This can particularly effect older employees, employees with heart disease, and employees that have high blood pressure. Hampton Roads has always had a bad joke of stating “wait 5 minutes and the weather will change.”

Common types of cold stress according to the CDC:

  • Hypothermia Occurs when the body is losing more heat than it can produce. An affected worker may shiver and seem tired or confused. As the condition worsens, shivering may stop. The worker’s pulse and breathing may slow, and his or her skin may become blue.
  • Frostbite Occurs when body parts actually freeze. Often affects fingers, toes, nose, ears, chin and cheeks. The affected area may become pale or blueish and may be numb or tingly.
  • Trench Foot Caused by prolonged exposure to moisture and cold, but not freezing, temperatures. The worker may experience numbness, tingling or redness. Blisters or bleeding may occur. Severe cases may lead to gangrene.
  • Chilblains Caused by repeated exposure to cool temperatures above freezing. This condition affects the same body parts as frostbite. The affected area may be red and itchy. Blisters or ulcers may develop.

To combat the elements, employees should be properly protected for changing conditions. Like heat related issues, cold stress needs to be taken seriously and briefed in safety meetings.

OHSA recommends combating cold stress with:

  • Dressing in Layers Workers should dress in layers. OSHA recommends three layers of loose clothing. Loose-fitting clothes trap warm air better than tight-fitting ones.
  • Wearing Proper Fabrics When dressing, workers should wear an inner layer made of wool, silk or a synthetic material. These fabrics keep moisture away from the body. The second (middle) layer should be made of wool or a synthetic. Such materials provide insulation even if they become wet. The outer layer should provide protection from wind and rain. It should also allow ventilation to prevent workers from overheating.
  • Headgear, Boots and Gloves Like the rest of the body, the head is vulnerable to heat loss. Thus, workers who are exposed to cold need protective headgear. A hat should extend over the ears to protect them from frostbite. Some workers may require a mask. Fingers and toes are highly susceptible to damage by cold. Gloves and boots are important. Both should be insulated and water-proof.
  • Extra Clothing Clothing can become wet from contact with snow, ice or sweat. Workers should avoid wearing wet clothing because water conducts heat away from the body. To protect themselves, workers should keep extra clothes on hand.