Although the weather has remained relatively warm across much of the country this fall, winter is right around the corner. This will mean colder temperatures, snow and the potential dangers of cold stress for employees that are not properly protected.
What is Cold Stress?
Many of us are aware of the dangers that high temperatures can cause including dehydration, heat exhaustion and in extreme situations heat stroke. This collection of hazards is referred to as heat stress and can be very dangerous.
Similar to heat stress, cold stress refers to the potential hazards and effects that extremely low temperatures can cause. Cold stress results from the body’s inability to warm itself, and this can cause dehydration, numbness, shivering, frostbite and hypothermia. Some of the factors that contribute to cold stress include cold air temperatures, high-velocity air movement, dampness of the air and contact with cold water or surfaces.
Shivering is the first and most common symptom, and it is often the most ignored. When the body drops below 98.6 degrees, blood begins to flow away from extremities, and this results in the immediate cooling of exposed skin increasing the risk of hypothermia. As body temperatures continue to fall, dexterity decreases and speech may be slurred. At 85 degrees Fahrenheit, severe hypothermia sets in and at 78 degrees or below the body is at maximum risk for brain damage and even death.
Who is At Risk?
Workers in the construction, agriculture, maritime and commercial fishing industries are often exposed to the most extreme risks due to the nature of their work. Cold stress, however, is not exclusive to outdoor workers as those who work in cold storage, food processing or those without heat in their facilities are also at risk. Workers in colder regions are at the highest risk, but often workers in warmer regions are less prepared for changing temperatures. This is dangerous, as it only takes near freezing temperatures to trigger the onset of cold stress.
Some individual factors contribute to higher risk for cold stress as well:
- Not being physically fit
- Having an underlying condition or illness
- Being under the influence of drugs or alcohol
- Working in wet or damp conditions
- Exposed to vibration from tools
- Working without proper personal protective equipment (PPE)
- Not acclimated to the cold
How Can You Protect Your Workers from Cold Stress?
Employees should plan ahead to work in cold weather and employers should provide the proper protective clothing. Employees must be aware of how their body is reacting to the cold and must avoid alcohol, certain medications and smoking to minimize risk.
One of the most important ways to avoid cold stress is to wear the proper protective clothing. When choosing the correct clothing, the type of fabric makes a difference. Cotton loses insulation when it becomes wet. Wool silk and most synthetics, on the other hand, retain their insulation even when wet.
The following are recommendations by OSHA for working in cold environments:
- Wear at least three layers of clothing. An inner layer of wool, silk or synthetic to wick moisture away from the body. A middle layer of wool or synthetic to provide insulation even when wet, and an outer wind and rain protection layer that allows ventilation to prevent overheating
- Wear a hat or hood, as up to 40% of body heat can be lost when the head is exposed. Also, wear insulated boots or other footwear to protect the feet
- Keep a change of dry clothing available in case work clothes become wet
- Drink plenty of liquids to help avoid dehydration
- Schedule heavy work during the warmest parts of the day and take breaks when necessary
- Work in pairs or use a buddy system to watch for signs of cold stress
- Consume warm, high calorie food such as pasta to maintain energy reserves
Cold stress is dangerous, and with its sneaky symptoms, it often goes undetected until it’s too late. Building awareness of the dangers of cold stress, applying the appropriate engineering controls and providing the proper protective equipment are all important steps you can take to protect your workers.
Have a Safe Day!