In this video, we’re going to learn about the risks and injuries that are commonly associated with working in cold-weather conditions and how you can prevent them from happening in the workplace.
So, what is cold stress and how does it affect our bodies? In the Midwest, we classify extreme cold as anything below 32 °F. In situations where temperatures fall below 32°F, our bodies tend to lose heat rapidly and have to work harder to maintain their normal operating temperatures.
When it comes to cold stress, there are two key factors that one should be aware of. These are environmental factors and personal risk factors. Environmental factors include cold air temperatures, high wind speeds, and precipitation, while personal risk factors include inadequate clothing, excessive strenuous activity, or those with pre-existing health conditions such as hypertension, hypothyroidism, or diabetes. As the combination of environmental and personal risk factors go up, the greater the risk your body will react to the cold conditions.
Cold Induced Illnesses
Hypothermia is a cold-stress induced illness that occurs when body heat is lost faster than it can be replenished. For example, when the normal body temperature of 98.6°F drops below 95°F, the heart, central nervous system, and other organs can begin to shutdown causing serious injury or even death.
Hypothermia begins with mild symptoms such as shivering, slurred speech, shallow breathing, or drowsiness. As time goes on and body temperature continues to fall, these mild symptoms can turn more severe. Eventually, shivering stops and a loss of coordination and feeling of extreme confusion will worsen. Difficulty walking, standing, and breathing will occur until a complete loss of consciousness takes place.
In the event you or someone around you may be suffering from a moderate to severe case of hypothermia, call 911 immediately. Do your best to move that person to a warm, dry area, remove any wet clothing, and cover their body with blankets, tarp, garbage bags, or anything else that will serve as a warm insulate until help arrives.
Frostbite is one of the most well-known cold injuries and is caused by freezing of the skin and underlying tissues. This typically occurs on the fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks, and any skin that is exposed without protection. On rare occasion, it can even occur on skin that is covered by gloves or other clothing.
Frostbite begins with a mild reddening of the skin that often leads to numbness, serving as a warning that frost bite is imminent. If left untreated, it can turn into superficial frost bite, in which the skin begins to turn an unnatural white or pale. Your skin may also begin to feel warm, which is a sign of serious skin injury. If left untreated, your skin will gradually develop a case of deep frostbite. Deep frostbite occurs when your skin turns a bluish gray, losing all sensation of cold, pain, or discomfort. Blisters may also occur in the affected area. At this phase, joints and muscles may no longer work and medical treatment would be required.
In the event you feel like you may be suffering from frostbite, follow the recommendations as needed for hypothermia. It’s important to not rub the affected area to warm it, as this can cause more damage to the skin and nerves. Cover the exposed area from the elements and protect it from contact, then seek medical attention. It’s safer for the frostbitten area to be rewarmed by medical professionals.
Another not as well-known cold stress illness is trench foot, caused by prolonged skin exposure to cold temperatures and wet conditions. Although commonly found in colder temperatures, it’s also been known to occur at temperatures as high as 60°F when the feet are constantly wet.
This non-freezing foot injury often occurs in the winter because when feet become wet, they lose heat 25x faster than dry feet. Symptoms of trench foot are redness and numbing of the feet. As the condition worsens, your feet may begin to swell and blisters or open sores may occur. If left untreated, trench foot can develop into gangrene, a type of tissue death in which amputation is often required.
If you feel like you may be suffering from a serious cause of trench foot, it’s important that you first remove your shoes, dry your feet, and replace your wet socks with dry ones. For serious symptoms of trench foot, it’s important that you seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Cold Stress Prevention
To no surprise, wearing proper clothing for cold temperatures is one of the best ways you can protect yourself. Whenever possible, try to dress in 3 layers of properly fitted clothing, including a base layer, an insulating layer, and an outer shell layer whenever possible. Layered clothing works well because you can add or remove layers as needed to avoid sweating.
It’s also important to note that not all fabrics are created equal. When working in cold conditions, try to include a base layer with materials such as polyester, wool, or silk. These will help pull perspiration away from the skin to prevent chills. After providing a base layer, you’ll want to insulate with a middle layer of clothing. In general, thicker (or puffier) typically equals warmer. Fabrics such as wool, down, or polyester tend to work best. Lastly, you’ll want to provide and outer layer to protect from the wind, rain, or snow. These are often made up of materials such as a woven nylon or polyester fabric which are water-resistant and still breathable.
In addition to layers, it’s also important that you protect your body with a winter hat, well insulated gloves, waterproof boots, long underwear, and a knit face mask for extremely cold days.
If clothing is your first line of defense when it comes to the cold, then engineering controls come in at a close second. Although not always available, engineering controls such as radiant heaters, furnaces, propane heaters and truck heaters can provide an easy warm up when needed most. Garages and garage doors can also be an ideal engineer control to shield work from drafts or winds.
Safety in the workplace:
Much like working in the extreme heat, it often takes 6-7 days to get acclimated to working in the cold. During this time, you’ll want to gradually increase your workload, taking frequent breaks in warm areas as your body builds up tolerance to working in the cold environment. The threat of dehydration is also very real during the winter months. Remember to drink warm, sweetened liquids and avoid alcoholic drinks. Like always, continue to monitor your health and the health of those around you. If you should ever have a concern, always consult with your manager or someone in HR.
Safe Winter Driving
In addition to the threat of cold stress, the leading cause of injury and death during the winter is related to transportation accidents. Although we can’t always control roadway conditions and others on the road with us, we should always recognize the threats of winter weather driving and prepare for it.
Safe Distance Policy:
Rear-end collisions are one of the most severe and costly of accidents you’ll encounter while on the road. One of the best ways you prepare for the worst is to follow our safe distance policy. This policy states that all drivers, regardless of the vehicle they’re in, should allow at least 5-7 seconds of clear following distance between their vehicle and the vehicle in front of them. This cushion of safety can often be crucial in assuring you will have ample time to stop or take evasive action in an emergency situation.
In addition to our safe distance policy, one should also be aware of the proper way to brake when driving in winter conditions. This begins by determining if the vehicle you are driving is equipped with an anti-lock braking system, also known as an ABS. You can find this information out by inserting your key into the ignition and looking for the ABS light to ignite on the dashboard.
If equipped with ABS, you’ll need to brake by using continuous and steady pedal pressure. Always resist the urge to take your foot off the brake while ABS is engaged. This will dramatically increase your stopping distance and could result in a crash.
If the vehicle doesn’t have ABS, you’ll need to manually pump your brakes to help maintain control on slippery roads. To do this, gently apply and release pressure at a moderate on and off rate. Do not apply quick or steady pressure, as this can cause your wheels to lock and your car to skid.
It’s also important that you do your best to decelerate well in advance of a turn or stopping point. Try to avoid using brakes while turning; slowdown in advance of the turn and then accelerate very gently while going through it.
When descending down a hill, pick your maximum safe speed while at the crest and then stay under that speed throughout the decent with gentle on/off braking. Don’t expect to do all your braking at that stop sign at the bottom of the hill.
If you’re approaching a stop with patches of ice, brake firmly as you cross over the ice. Additionally, if you are moving significantly slower than traffic or are making an unusual maneuver, always use your four-way flashers to safely notify those around you.
When driving in winter conditions, it’s also important to remember that traction can often be limited. With this in mind, you’ll need to make all moves slowly and carefully. This includes starting, stopping, turning, speeding up, slowing down. Sudden moves often cause trouble when the traction is poor. In scenarios when your drive wheels start to spin, ease off on the accelerator slightly and then gently resume speed.
If your vehicle begins to skid, always turn the wheel in the direction of the skid. If you rear end starts sliding to the right, turn the wheel to the right. If your rear end starts sliding to the left, turn your wheel to the left and never attempt to apply brakes while in a skid. This will make things dramatically worse.