As the winter months continue, it’s important to prepare for the challenging weather conditions that come with the season, including frigid temperatures and strong winds. Whether your employees work outside in these harsh conditions or if they are exposed to cold temperatures in an indoor manufacturing or warehouse facility, providing them with an environment free of cold working hazards can be a challenge. By taking a look at what these hazards are and what cold-related injuries and illnesses can occur, you can prioritize keeping workers safe and warm at your facility.
Cold Working Conditions
There are several types of work that are impacted by cold conditions. Naturally, industrial freezers and coolers, cold production lines, dock areas, and maintenance work come to mind. Workers in these jobs can be directly impacted by cold conditions created by the temperatures of their inside work environments. Other workers, such as those in the construction industry, road and highway maintenance, waste haulers, delivery and truck drivers, emergency services, and others, deal not only with cold atmospheric conditions from working outdoors but also often have the addition of a brutal wind chill factor as well.
When dealing with cold temperatures and wind chill, heat can leave the body more rapidly, which creates the potential for cold-related injuries and illnesses, or “cold stress.” Cold stress occurs when a person’s skin temperature, and eventually core body temperature, drops. When the body can no longer maintain its normal temperature, serious injuries resulting in permanent tissue damage, or even death, can occur.
The most commonly known cold stress illness is hypothermia. Hypothermia is caused by prolonged exposure to very cold temperatures. Under cold conditions, the body begins to lose heat faster than it’s produced, eventually using up the body’s stored energy and leading to a lower body temperature. If the body’s temperature gets too low, it can affect the brain, which can cause slurred speech, memory loss, dexterity problems, drowsiness, and overall confusion.
Hypothermia is especially dangerous because a person may become so confused that they may not know what is happening and are unable to do anything about their condition. Although hypothermia most commonly occurs in cold temperatures, it can also become a hazard at more mild temperatures if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat, or submersion in cold water.
Frostbite is an injury that generally affects the extremities (usually hands and feet, nose, ears, cheeks, and chin), freezing the skin and underlying tissues. The first signs of frostbite are cold skin, prickling, and numbness. Because of the numbness, workers may not realize that they have frostbite until someone points it out. As with other cold stress illnesses, frostbite also has varying levels of severity.
Frostnip is mild frostbite that irritates the skin, causes a change in skin color, and bestows the feeling of cold and numbness but does not cause permanent damage. With superficial frostbite, the skin feels warm, and blisters may appear after warming the skin. As frostbite progresses, deep or severe frostbite occurs, affecting all layers of the skin and underlying tissues. With severe frostbite, the skin will turn white or blue-gray, and all sensation will be lost. Joints or muscles may stop working, and large blisters will form. Eventually, the tissue will turn black and hard as it dies. Frostbite at this stage regularly leads to amputation.
Also known as Immersion Foot Syndrome, trench foot is a serious condition that results from feet getting wet and not drying off properly. The medical term for trench foot is Non-Freezing Cold Injury or NFCI. Trench foot most commonly occurs in temperatures of 30º to 40º F but can even occur in temperatures as warm as 60º F. The contributing factor is how wet the feet become and not necessarily how cold they are. With prolonged cold and wetness, feet can lose circulation and nerve function. Those at the highest risk levels are those in wet working environments that may be exacerbated by cold weather.
Some of the signs and symptoms of trench foot, or NFCI, are feet that are cold, swollen, heavy, painful, and prickly. The skin color of the foot will be white or gray, and the foot will feel numb. These symptoms are due to blood vessels constricting in cold, moist conditions, which results in a lack of oxygen to the tissues.
Treatment of Cold-Related Illnesses
Although these illnesses vary, treatments for cold-related conditions are similar. With all three, prompt medical care is vital for the safety of the worker. The following steps should be followed for all cold-related illnesses:
- Move the affected worker to a warm, dry area
- Remove any wet clothing and replace with dry clothing. Wrap in a warm blanket, taking care to cover the head and neck.
- Provide the person with warm drinks if they are alert. Avoid caffeine and alcohol.
- Frostbitten areas should be wrapped loosely in a dry cloth – DO NOT rub the affected areas, as this causes damage to skin tissues. DO NOT try to re-warm the frostbitten areas with heating pads or warm water. It is safer for a frostbitten area to be rewarmed by medical professionals.
- With trench foot, keep the person sitting with their feet slightly elevated
- With ALL emergency situations, call 911
Oftentimes the injuries associated with work in cold weather environments can be overshadowed by cold stress illnesses. Sprains, strains, and fractures can easily be attributed to slips and falls in wet or icy conditions. Snow removal tasks come with a strong potential for back and shoulder injuries. Similarly, truck drivers may slip and fall while entering or exiting their vehicles, and production workers may experience contusions or lacerations due to poor dexterity caused by cold hands. Regardless of the type of injury that may occur, they are all often attributed to the harsh conditions of a cold environment.
As an employer, extra steps should be taken to ensure those working in cold environments are aware of the hazards and how to prevent injury or illness in these conditions. It is important that workers are trained in recognizing hazards in their environment and workplace conditions. Workers should be aware of slip/fall hazards, know the signs and symptoms of cold stress, and learn what to do to help those who are affected. Other controls to help prevent cold-related illnesses and injuries include
- Schedule work during the warmest part of the day
- Keep walking/working surfaces free of ice and water
- Require employees to work in pairs in order to watch out for each other
- Provide radiant heat warming areas and offer more frequent breaks for warming
- Provide protective clothing to ward off the adverse effects of the cold working climates (i.e. waterproof boots and gloves, insulated clothing and cold weather hats, gloves and jackets, and face protection to provide a protective layer against the elements. When possible, explore the options of new technology by providing battery-heated coats and jackets, hand and foot warmers, and moisture-wicking clothing.)
- Provide slip-resistant, waterproof boots in wet working conditions
- Provide warm, sweet beverages (hot chocolate, tea, or cider). Avoid caffeine and of course, alcohol.
- Encourage employees to dress in several layers of loose clothing to provide insulation to the body
Employee exposure to cold working conditions is inevitable in many locations and industries, but the consequences are avoidable. Being prepared for cold conditions by providing workers with cold weather protective equipment, allowing for breaks, and educating them about the hazards they can face are all integral to a cold conditions working plan.
If you need assistance creating a plan to mitigate cold-related illnesses and injuries, contact U.S. Compliance for guidance in maintaining a safe work environment in any season.