The physical effects of cold temperatures combined with wind chill can be severe for many workers during winter. This is particularly the case for those who are involved in outdoor agriculture, construction, and emergency response. Read our latest guide on cold stress to find out more about the harsh effects of environmental cold:
What is Cold Stress?
For workers not acclimated to winter weather, even temperatures above freezing temperatures can be considered “too cold.”
In a cold environment, most of the energy the body uses is to maintain a consistent temperature. As temperature drops and wind chill increases, heat leaves the body much faster than it can maintain skin temperature and core temperature. As a result, we begin to see symptoms of cold stress. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), there are several factors contributing to cold stress:
- Wetness or dampness of clothing or skin, dressing inappropriately, and exhaustion
- Predisposed health conditions—including diabetes, hypertension, and hypothyroidism
- Insufficient physical conditioning
What are the Common Kinds of Cold Stress?
There are three main types of cold-related stress:
- Hypothermia: Occurs when the body temperature drops from 98.6°F to 95°F or less. Severe effects include slurred speech, confusion, slowed heart rate or breathing, loss of consciousness or even death.
- Frostbite: Occurs when the skin and underlying tissues freeze. Typically, frostbite affects the extremities—especially the hands and feet. Severe cases may lead to amputation. Symptoms include gray or white patches on the reddened skin, numbness, blisters, and the affected part feels firm or hard.
- Trench Foot: Also known as immersion foot, this non-freezing injury is caused by prolonged exposure to wet or cold environments. It may also occur at 60°F if the feet are consistently wet. Symptoms include swelling, numbness, blisters, and redness of the skin.
How can Employers Help to Prevent Cold Stress?
While OSHA does not have a particular standard about working in extreme cold, employers are still responsible for providing workers with a workplace that is free from recognized hazards—such as cold stress. You can also learn safety measures from these OSHA Training courses. Here are a few preventive tips from OSHA:
- Know the environmental and occupational conditions that may pose a hazard.
- Recognize the signs or symptoms of cold-induced stress and how to help workers.
- Train workers how to identify, prevent, and address cold-related illnesses and injuries.
- Encourage workers to dress appropriately—especially in cold, wet, and windy weather conditions.
- Ensure that employees (who are working in extreme cold) take short breaks to warm up in dry shelters.
- If possible, schedule work during the warmest time of the day.
- Avoid fatigue or exhaustion to conserve energy and keep muscles warm.
- Use the buddy system to recognize the red flags.
- Drink warm and sweet beverages like sugar water or sports drinks.
- Avoid caffeinated drinks and alcohol.
Cold stress can be prevented with proper training and workplace safety measures. For more tips on emergency preparedness and other industry practices, follow our blog!