Thousands of individuals spend their days working outdoors, and many suffer from one environmentally generated health problem or another. Seasonal allergies, UV exposure, and heat-related illnesses are typical during the spring, summer, and fall months, but now is the time to be aware of cold-related problems. Workers should take special care to protect themselves. Here are some everyday tips to keep in mind:
- Know the symptoms of cold stress.
- Monitor your condition along with your coworkers.
- Dress properly.
- Stay dry! Dampness can accelerate heat loss.
- Keep extra dry clothing on hand.
- Drink warm, sweetened liquids; no alcohol.
- Utilize proper engineering controls, safe work practices, and Personal Protective Equipment.
How cold is too cold? That really depends on what your body is accustomed to. In areas of the country that do not commonly get cold during the winter, near freezing can be classified as “extreme cold.”
The human body also is susceptible to wind chill, which is a factor derived from a combination of the actual ambient temperature and wind speed. The combination of 40 F and 35-mile-per-hour winds can make the air feel like 28 F to exposed skin. Cold temperatures and wind chill can singularly or collectively be responsible for driving down skin temperature followed by internal or core temperature, resulting in serious health problems.
In these cold environments, the body has to work harder to stay warm. Prolonged stretches in extreme situations can cause the body to shift blood flow from extremities and outer skin to the core to maintain warmth. It is this shift that leads to a more rapid cooling of skin and may result in frostbite or hypothermia.
There are a few factors to keep in mind when assessing the risks. Poor physical conditioning and predisposing conditions can play a role. More importantly is to dress properly to reduce perspiration leading to damp clothing.
Hypothermia occurs when body heat is lost faster than it can be replaced. A good indicator is body temperature. When it drops below 95 F, the person is at great risk. The mildest symptoms may include shivering or stomping of feet to generate heat.
As the conditions progress, the individual may stop shivering, lose coordination, fumble with items, or become disoriented. As progression continues, you may notice an inability to stand or walk, dilated pupils, and slowing of pulse and breathing. If the individual loses consciousness, it is vital to call 911 for medical assistance immediately. Doing whatever possible to help the individual warm up while waiting for help can make an enormous difference in their recovery.
Frostbite is the freezing of skin and underlying tissue. This more often occurs on extremities and in extreme cases may require amputation. Symptoms of frostbite include redness progressing to gray or white patches, numbness, a stiffened or firm feeling on the surface, and blisters in extreme cases. Most often, frostbite occurs in extreme cold or on exposed skin. If you have concerns, seek medical attention immediately.
Trench Foot generally occurs when feet are exposed to cold and wet conditions for long periods of time. The cold is not as critical because one can experience this problem at temperatures up to 60 F when the feet are wet. Wet feet lose heat up to 25 times faster than dry feet. To maintain body warmth, blood vessels in the feet will constrict to reduce circulation. This activity results in skin dying due to oxygen deprivation and buildup of nutrients to a toxic level. Some of the signs to look for include redness, swelling, numbness, and blisters. Again, call 911 if you suspect this sort of injury is critical. In the interim, removing cold and wet shoes/socks while gently warming the feet will help.
Several occupations require employees to work in cold or even harsh/extreme conditions but with some tips it can be done without injury. Inspiration for this post comes via an OSHA cold weather safety article. For more information, check out these tips and treatments to work safely in the cold from OSHA Training University.
Please contact us with any questions or suggestions for future topics.