Much of the United States has seen consistent record low temperatures this winter. For those who work outside, cold stress is a real hazard. Employers need to educate all employees who work outside of the risks of cold exposure to themselves and fellow workers. Part of this awareness includes the understanding that cold stress presents itself in many different ways as symptoms vary depending on the person.
Prolonged exposure to moderate cold or even short exposure to severe cold can result in dehydration, numbness, chilblains, frostbite, immersion foot, and hypothermia. Workers suffering from exposure to the cold can experience thermal discomfort, increased strain, and decreased performance— possibly increasing the risk to more common hazards such as slips, trips, and falls.
These negative effects are experienced first by the peripheral parts of the body and gradually progress to deep body tissues and the body core. When the body’s core temperature drops below 95 F/35 C, it is defined as hypothermia.
The National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) offers employers these tips to help prevent unnecessary cold exposure:
- Schedule strategically - If possible, schedule outdoor jobs in the warmer months or at least on warmer days. Many areas this winter have seen days with temperatures fluctuated from the mid-thirties to below zero temperatures within the same week. Pay attention to the forecast and strategically schedule outdoor jobs when the cold is not as severe.
- Add workers - Consider adding relief workers to the schedule, especially for long, demanding outdoor jobs.
- Provide breaks in a warm place - Giving workers an area of warmth to take a break can go a long way in preventing cold stress and increasing overall morale and productivity. Enforcing break time and providing warm drinks is also recommended.
- Monitor -Train site supervisors to keep a close watch for symptoms of cold stress. They should especially pay attention to those that may be at risk, such as older employees. It's a good idea to include chemical hot packs and thermometers in each first aid kit.
- Train Employees - Providing proper employee training in recognizing the hazards of cold exposure and the systems of cold stress is a critical step toward protecting them. Training should also include tips on prevention and what to do if a cold-related injury does occur.
- Provide Protective Clothing and Proper PPE – Consider a stipend for proper extreme weather clothing—particularly for ears, face, hands and feet prptection. Boots should be insulated and waterproof if employees are working around snow or rain. Encourage employees to wear layers, (but not tight-fitting clothing, which reduces circulation making extremities more vulnerable) and extras clothing. If the employee gets wet, they should change into dry clothes immediately.
Encourage hydration, a good diet and proper sleep - Employees should eat properly with plenty of carbohydrates and fats for energy and warmth prior to beginning work; drink fluids to stay well hydrated (avoid alcoholic beverages which reduce hydration); and get enough sleep to meet the demands of the job.