People who work outdoors in winter weather are subject to cold, wet working conditions. Working in these environments can be harmful. It’s important to know factors that can cause cold stress, the symptoms of cold stress, and how to prevent cold stress related health issues.
Workers in every segment of the energy industry may work in cold outdoor conditions. In this post we will explain what cold stress is and how to prevent cold stress injuries.
What is Cold Stress?
Cold stress occurs by driving down the skin temperature, and eventually the internal body temperature. When the body is unable to warm itself, serious cold-related illnesses and injuries may occur, and permanent tissue damage and death may result. Types of cold stress include: trench foot, frostbite, and hypothermia.
Know the Causes
Some factors that can cause cold stress are cold temperatures, strong wind, dampness, and cold water. When working in a cold environment, the body has to work harder to maintain its core temperature. Cold air, water, and snow can draw heat from the body making temperature regulation even harder. When thinking of cold weather injuries, it is obvious that below freezing conditions and inadequate shelter or clothing for protection can create cold stress trauma, it is important to understand that injuries can also happen in temperatures in the 50's coupled with rain and/or wind.
Recognize the Symptoms
Trench foot, or immersion foot syndrome, is a serious condition that results from your feet being wet for too long. The condition first became known during World War I, when soldiers got trench foot from fighting in cold, wet conditions in trenches without the extra socks or boots to help keep their feet dry.
Symptoms: Reddening skin, blotchy skin, tingling, pain, swelling, leg cramps, numbness, and blisters.
Frostbite occurs when the skin is exposed to extreme or prolonged cold. The skin freezes, as do tissues beneath the surface of the skin. In extreme cases, muscle, nerves, and blood vessels may also freeze. Frostbite can cause permanent damage to the body, and in severe cases can lead to amputation.
Symptoms: Reddened skin develops gray/white patches on exposed areas and extremities such as fingers, toes, nose, or ear lobes; tingling, aching, a loss of feeling, firm/hard tissue, and blisters may occur in the affected areas.
Hypothermia occurs when the normal body temperature (98.6°F) drops to less than 95°F. Hypothermia is most likely to occur at very cold temperatures, but can happen even at cool temperatures (above 40°F) if a person becomes chilled from rain, sweat, or immersion in cold water.
Symptoms: excessive shivering, slowed breathing, slowed speech, clumsiness, stumbling, confusion, excessive fatigue, a weak pulse, or unconsciousness.
Being prepared is the best defense against cold stress. There are two main ways to prepare: proper gear and behavioral adjustments. Wear appropriate clothing. Be aware of your body’s reaction to the cold. Avoid alcohol, certain medications, and smoking before cold weather work.
Wearing the correct work clothing is the easiest way to avoid cold stress. Performance FR outerwear over layers is best. The type of fabric also makes a difference. Learn how to choose FR winterwear. Be sure your outerwear blocks wind and precipitation. Know how to layer your workwear for maximum comfort and protection in cold weather.
Drink plenty of liquids, avoiding caffeine and alcohol to prevent dehydration. If possible, heavy work should be scheduled during the warmer parts of the day. Take breaks out of the cold. Work in pairs to keep an eye on each other and watch for signs of cold stress. Victims of hypothermia may not recognize symptoms.
Healthline. (n.d.). Healthline.com. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://www.healthline.com/
Occupational Safety and Health Administration. (n.d.). Winter Weather | Wind Chill Temperature: A Guide for ... Retrieved November 12, 2020, from osha.gov/dts/weather/winter_weather/windchill.html
The University of Iowa. (n.d.). Cold Stress. EHS Research - Occupational. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://ehs.research.uiowa.edu/occupational/cold-stress