What Causes Cold Stress?
Extreme cold and its effects can differ from one location to another. It’s how your body reacts to the cold that determines how much you can take or how quickly cold stress sets in. So how cold is too cold? It depends on how your body reacts to it. When we step outside in cold weather, our body tries to keep our core temperature warm so we don’t freeze. If we are out in the cold too long, blood flow is directed from the extremities (such as our hands and feet) and skin to the core (the chest and abdomen). As our exposed skin and extremities lose heat, cold stress starts to set in. The body starts shivering to generate heat because at that point, it can no longer maintain core temperature by constricting blood vessels. Shivering becomes violent when the temperature drops to about 95°F and hypothermia starts to set in.
- Poor physical health
- Wet clothes
- Wet skin
- Failure to dress warmly
- Health conditions such as diabetes, hypothyroidism, etc.
Cold Stress SymptomsWorkers who spend most of their time outside are the most vulnerable to this condition. Many complain of frostbite and hypothermia, the 2 most common symptoms of cold stress. Hypothermia sets in when the body is unable to maintain core body temperature. In the early stages this leads to shivering, fatigue, coordination issues and disorientation. With time as the symptoms persist and if treatment is not sought, the skin begins to turn blue, pupils dilate and the pulse slows. The person suffering from hypothermia has trouble breathing and faints or falls into a coma. Frostbite is an extreme effect of cold stress. It occurs when the temperature of exposed skin drops to minus 1°C which stops blood flow to the hands and feet. As mentioned before, the body does this to maintain core temperature but it causes severe cold stress at the extremities. Usually workers who handle frozen food and metal in cold weather get frostbite easily. It can set in the ears, fingers, toes and nose and the condition worsens the longer a person remains in the cold. In severe cases, body tissue gets damaged so severely that it turns those areas black. Amputation is usually the only solution at the point so that the frostbite does not spread to the rest of the body. To prevent that from happening, early symptoms should not be ignored. This includes numbness, pins and needles and white skin which can turn blue with persistent exposure. The affected areas will also start to hurt badly and when those areas warm up, scabs can start to appear on the skin.
Safety tips for workersAll of these symptoms of cold stress can be prevented with early detection and if preventive measures are set in place. Here are some ways workers can be protected from the cold when they work outside:
- Workers should be trained to monitor their physical condition as they work
- Workers should be give appropriate warm clothing
- Workers should be given warm beverages regularly to maintain core body temperature
- Workers should be made aware of the symptoms of cold stress
- Workers should be provided appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE)
- Workers should remain dry in the workplace – even sweating can increase heat loss.